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IRAQ WARS
Iran pilgrims flock to Iraq with message for jihadists
by Staff Writers
Zurbattiyah, Iraq (AFP) Dec 08, 2014


Iraq PM vows to fight graft even at risk of own life
Baghdad (AFP) Dec 08, 2014 - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday said corruption was no lesser threat than terrorism and pledged to combat it even if that puts his life at risk.

Abadi took over at the helm of Iraq in September following an acrimonious process that saw his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki reluctantly step down after two terms.

He has since pledged to tackle a wide range of problems, including the system of corruption and patronage that observers say flourished during Maliki's two terms.

"We have started blowing some big fish out of the water and will go after them until the end, even if it costs me my life and regardless of the campaigns I will be subjected to, because corruption is no less significant than terrorism," Abadi told reporters in the holy Shiite city of Karbala.

On November 30, Abadi announced a preliminary investigation had uncovered the existence of 50,000 "fictitious names" on the military's payroll.

While he did not name Maliki, the public announcement and pledge to crack down on graft was seen as evidence Abadi was determined to hack away at his predecessor's legacy.

But Maliki said on Monday that the revelations on so-called "ghost soldiers" in the military were unfounded.

"This information is totally untrue. The army is free of ghost soldiers except for a few rare cases which are being followed up," he told AFP in answer to a question.

Likewise Maliki, who is now one of Iraq's vice presidents, did not refer to Abadi by name but directly challenged his words.

"We wish the source of information had been accurate and had investigated before making announcements, thus not creating confusion that is exploited by those who want to undermine the state and its institutions," he said.

Maliki said the many soldiers who fled the army when the Islamic State group launched their offensive in June and took over the second city of Mosul had been removed from the payroll.

"They should not be described as ghost soldiers but as deserters," he said, admitting that ghost employees were a problem in the interior ministry.

Maliki's critics say his sectarian policies and stranglehold on the security apparatus were partly to blame for the ease with which the jihadists took over swathes of Iraq.

Since he took office, Abadi has sacked or retired several senior security officials of the Maliki era.

Iranian pilgrims are pouring across the border into Iraq in unprecedented numbers for a huge annual religious gathering but also to flex Shiite muscle in the face of the Islamic State group.

Scrapped visa fees and an appeal by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, unleashed a million-strong human tide that bemused Iraqi border guards have struggled to control.

General Ali Tamuz, the top Iraqi security official at Zurbattiyah border crossing, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) east of Baghdad, has many bruises and a couple of cracked ribs to show for it.

On Saturday, the handful of translators employed at the desert border had long been swallowed by the crowd and Tamuz only knew one word of Farsi to manage the flow: "beshin" (sit down).

"That achieved pretty good results until a colleague from the police came over to help," he told AFP, laughing.

"He tried another word he thought he knew but it means 'come'. When the pilgrims heard that, they all stood up, the fence was broken and things got crazy."

The annual pilgrimage to Karbala for Arbaeen, which marks the end of the 40-day period of mourning for the revered Shiite figure of Imam Hussein, is consistently one of the world's largest religious gatherings.

In addition to the millions of Shiite devotees who flock to Karbala, some of them on foot, from across Iraq, a large contingent of Iranians traditionally make the trip.

Buses usually ferry them across eastern Iraq to Karbala. This year the number of Iranians on their way to the place where Hussein was killed in battle and beheaded in 680 AD has doubled.

The fact that Iraq waived visa requirements for the duration of the religious event, which culminates on December 13, has made the pilgrimage more affordable.

- 'We are here' -

But more than the 80-dollar saving, Khamenei's call to take part in the commemoration as a means of defying the Islamic State (IS) group appears to have been the main trigger.

Hussein Rahimi, a resident of Iran's Kerman province who had just crossed the border into Iraq, had no visa in his passport but a Khamenei sticker on the back cover.

"We came here on his orders," said the man of 40.

"We want to convey the message that we will always obey the marjaiya (Shiite religious leadership) and that we are ready to fight the terrorists right here and right now," Rahimi said.

Iraqi security chiefs see the presence of millions of Shiite faithful trekking across the country on open roads as a red flag to the Sunni extremist IS and its seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers.

However, recent battlefield victories against the jihadists, notably in the Jurf al-Sakhr area south of Baghdad, have helped clear a corridor for the pilgrims.

Wearing a green headband inscribed with the words "Labaik ya Hussein" (We are here at your service, Hussein), pilgrim Ali Akbar Ridhaie put in simply: "We came to show our presence here in Iraq."

Iran's involvement in Iraq was once somewhat of a taboo but in recent weeks, the key role played by Tehran in the anti-jihadist military effort has become more open.

Said Ohadi, who heads Iran's body in charge of organising pilgrimages, said on the country's official IRNA news agency that "so far more than 750,000 Iranian pilgrims have entered Iraq."

The deputy governor of Iraq's border province of Wasit, Adel al-Zargani, said he expected the total to reach one million this year.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said after a meeting in Tehran with his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari: "These pilgrims' entry... is a symbol of the cooperation and union between our two countries."


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