Iran suspends travel of pilgrims to Iraq

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Azzaman, July 2, 2014

Iraq’s holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala, which attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists every month, are almost deserted.

Pilgrims from Iran, which numbered in thousands every day, have stopped coming since Sunni militants belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) overrun the city of Mosul more three weeks ago.

Iran fears for the safety of its pilgrims, who had been targets of attacks and bombings, particularly when visiting Shiite holy shrines in Baghdad and Samarra.

The influx of tourists in large numbers was an economic boost to the cities and towns housing Shiite shrines.

Property prices had soared in Karbala, site of the shrine of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Land prices in the city were reported to be the highest in Iraq prior to the collapse of Iraqi armed forces in the face of ISIS.

It is the first time Karbala and Najaf are without Iranian and other pilgrims from countries with large and small Shiite communities.

Even at the height of sectarian violence, Iranian and other pilgrims continued pouring into the two cities, earning them millions of dollars in come every year.

There has been a flurry of hotel construction in both Najaf and Karbala in the years since the 2003-U.S. invasion despite the upsurge in insecurity.

The two cities now boast more than 500 hotels and they were reported not to be enough during high seasons, particularly when Muslim Shiites across the world celebrated their holy anniversaries and feasts.

But today, most of these hotels are empty.

The pouring of Iranian pilgrims into Iraq in fact had started in the days of former Iraqi leaders Saddam Hussein with the number of daily visitors hitting 10,000 during religious occasions.

More than 100,000 Iranian pilgrims travelled by land to Iraq every month prior to the resurgence of ISIS militants and their control of northern and western areas in the country.

The drastic drop in numbers of pilgrims, which had almost stopped in the past three weeks, is a blow to the economies of religious cities in Iraq.

Karbala and Najaf relied heavily on tourism revenues.

Iraq was slowly turning into a tourist attraction not only for the large numbers of Muslim pilgrims but for some westerners captivated by its Mesopotamian heritage.