Iran seeks 3 million Shi'ite pilgrims into Iraq a year

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iran is pressing Iraq to increase six-fold the number of Shi’ite pilgrims from Iran allowed to visit Iraq’s holy sites, a move that could deepen ties between historical foes, the government said on Thursday.

Mohammed Abbas al-Aribi, Iraq’s acting tourism and antiquities minister, discussed religious pilgrims at a meeting with Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, a government statement said.

About 500,000 Shi’ite pilgrims from Iran visit Iraq every year, the statement said, many of whom go to the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines in Kerbala, two of the holiest sites for Shi’ite Muslims, and the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf.

“We want to bring that to three million,” Kazemi-Qomi said, according to the statement. He said Iran hoped to sign an agreement increasing the number of Iranian pilgrims permitted into Iraq every day from 1,500 to 2,500.

The statement did not say when Iran hoped to reach its target of three million pilgrims a year.

A million Iraqis visit holy sites in Iran every year, the statement said.

There was no immediate indication whether Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government would accept the proposal. Maliki’s government has taken tentative steps in recent years to strengthen its ties with Iran.

Washington accuses Iran of arming, training and funding Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Tehran denies the charge and blames the violence in Iraq, in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have died, on the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

At least a million people are believed to have been killed in a bloody eight-year war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s.

Saddam cut off religious tourism from Iran, especially during the war, but later took steps to allow a limited number of Iranian pilgrims to travel to Iraq each year.

Writing by Missy Ryan, editing by Tim Pearce