NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Among the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims streaming into Iraq’s holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala on Saturday, Michael Symons’ blonde goatee and bald white head wrapped in a headscarf stood out like a beacon.
The Canadian sales manager was among a group of Canadian and U.S. citizens, some of them formerly from Iraq, who joined this year’s Arbain pilgrimage to raise money for Iraqi orphans, like other walkers defying the threat of bomb attacks by insurgents.
“What we are doing here is taking part in what we are calling the Arbain walk for life,” Symons said as he set off from the city of Najaf toward Kerbala, wearing sunglasses and dressed like the rest of the crowd in black.
“This is an effort to show solidarity with the Iraqi people.”
At least 45 people were killed and around 200 wounded on Wednesday when two car bombs tore through crowds of pilgrims near checkpoints into Kerbala.
The assaults bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda and officials say they are meant to undermine confidence in Iraqi security forces ahead of the full withdrawal of U.S. forces this year.
Arbain, which culminates on Tuesday, marks the end of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th Century battle and is a central figure of Shi’ite Islam. He is believed to be buried in Kerbala.
Shi’ite ceremonies were banned under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Since Saddam’s fall in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, millions of Shi’ites from Iraq, neighboring Iran and Muslim communities around the world have visited cities like Kerbala and Najaf, home to some of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites.
Arbain ranks among the top targets of Sunni Islamist groups like al Qaeda which view Shi’ites as apostates and are still trying to reignite the sectarian war that almost tore Iraq apart at its peak in 2006-07.
Sometimes pilgrims come from the West. They all put their lives on the line for their faith.
“Fears exist, but we have to complete our walk of life. It’s for the sake of Iraqi orphans, to give them hope,” said Nouri al-Hassani, an Iraqi who has Canadian citizenship and is the head of the Child Aid International charity.
“If we surrender to these bombings then that would mean the terrorists have scored a victory. I call upon all honorable people to stand against those vicious terrorists.”
Hassani, who fled Iraq in 1991 and whose brother and father were executed by Saddam’s Baath party, hopes to raise $200,000 through the walk from Najaf to Kerbala for Iraqi orphans.
His group supports 465 Iraqi orphans after being established in 2004.
Also taking part in the 90-km (55-mile) walk were Asif Tejani, a Canadian dentist, and two female U.S. citizens, Aatiya Zaidi and Azra Khalfan.
Both women wore all-enveloping black abayas, making them indistinguishable from the river of other pilgrims flowing by below billowing black flags and past tents where relief organizations offer food and drink to trekkers.
The group was shadowed by undercover Iraqi police officers to provide additional security. The Iraqi government has deployed around 120,000 police and troops during Arbain.
“We are trying to help all orphans in Iraq regardless of their ethnicity, whether they are Shi’ite, Sunni or Christians,” said Hassani.
The walk for orphans was Zaidi’s idea, proposed a year ago.
“It feels fantastic. I’ve been waiting an entire year for this. It feels incredible to walk finally,” she said.
“We did think about security concerns ... but I think that those people around us are a lot more concerned than we are. We have a mission and we are just going to do this, whatever it takes.”
Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Maria Golovnina
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