Millions of Shiite Muslims make a pilgrimage every year to the Hussein ibn Ali shrine in Karbala, Iraq, to commemorate the battle in which the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad was killed. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, Arbaeen — meaning the “40th” day — commemorations were subdued. With the fall of Saddam and closer Iran-Iraq relations, Arbaeen pilgrimages have become important not only for millions of Iranian pilgrims but also for Iranian leaders who see the rise of the significance of the event with their own geopolitical rise.
At a meeting with the families of those who lost their lives fighting in Iraq and Syria — fighters whom Iran refers to as “defenders of the shrines” — Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed the importance of this group for the significance of Arbaeen today. Khamenei recounted the actions of the early believers who protected Ali's tomb and likened them to today’s defenders of the shrines.
Khamenei said that if it were not for the early believers who would not allow the desecration of Ali's tomb, there would not be 20 million Arbaeen pilgrims today. He continued, “It is the same for your children. If not for your children — your dear martyrs — if these people had not gone, the enemy would have been very close to the sacred tombs.” Khamenei’s reference to the enemy is the Islamic State (IS), which took over large parts of Iraq in June 2014. He said that IS was so close to the shrines — particularly the Al-Kadhimiya shrine, which contains the tomb of the seventh Shiite imam, Musa al-Kazim, and the ninth imam, Mohammad al-Jawad — they could have shelled and destroyed the shrines.
An interesting point Khamenei also claimed was that — unlike the Iran-Iraq War in which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini encouraged Iranians to go to the front lines and defend the country against invading Iraqi troops in the 1980s, no one was encouraged to go to Syria or Iraq in a similar fashion. “The great task that your youth accomplished — this was for God,” Khamenei said. “We did not encourage anyone to go.”
Khamenei is right in that there was not a large push by the state to recruit Iranians to fight in Iraq and Syria. However, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) certainly was active in recruiting young Shiites in these campaigns. This is one reason perhaps why Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, and Bahrain chose to include the IRGC on their list of terrorist organizations. The list also included IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani as well as Quds Force members Hamed Abdollahi and Abdul Reza Shahlai.
In response to the designations, Mohammad Saleh Jokar, IRGC deputy for parliamentary affairs, said that the listing of Soleimani and the IRGC as terrorists was a tactic by Saudi Arabia to “distract public opinion” from the Jamal Khashoggi murder. Former Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian tweeted, “The Saudi and Bahrain regimes which govern their own people through terror and fear are in no place to name IRGC and Soleimani terrorists.”
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