Iraqi Officials Concerned That Absence of Shiite Pilgrims Could Affect Elections

Baghdad, Iraq - The annual Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala, the burial place of Imam Hussein, one of the sect’s most important figures, has run into a scheduling conflict of a contemporary sort: Saturday’s provincial elections.

Every year, Shiite pilgrims travel hundreds of miles, sometimes on foot, to honor Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Concerned that the marchers might not make it home in time to vote, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, has instructed his followers to delay the start of their processions until after the balloting.

But many pilgrims, including thousands from the southern city of Basra, began walking Tuesday anyway. They said that otherwise they might not reach the shrine in Karbala by early February, the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein.

“We started early because it’s a long way from Faw to Karbala,” said a marcher who identified himself as Achmed, referring to his hometown near Basra. “We need 17 days to get there.”

Candidates in Basra, one of the centers for oil production in Iraq, said Tuesday that they were concerned that people who chose the procession over voting could skew the vote.

“There are thousands of people leaving the city on their way to Karbala, which means the percentage of voters will be reduced,” said Hakim al-Mayahi, an independent candidate. “We will lose the voices of many voters.”

He added that this would be particularly hard on independent candidates, because they were not as well organized as the Shiite religious parties that dominated politics in southern Iraq.

Hassan Kadhim, a candidate representing the Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq, one of the leading Shiite parties, dismissed concerns about the political impact of the march, saying that the overwhelming majority of the pilgrims would be back in their home districts in time to vote.

“We are not worried, because they will all return before curfew on Friday,” he said.

On Tuesday, pilgrims said they had been offered rides by strangers to polling stations for Saturday’s elections — as well as a ride back to where they had left off walking — as long as they voted for the Islamic Supreme Council’s candidates.

“They said, ‘We will bring you back on one condition — that you vote for us,’ ” Achmed said. “We refused.”

A member of the Independent High Electoral Commission, which is overseeing the election, said Tuesday that the dates of the balloting and the procession were a coincidence. “Everyone is free to vote and participate in his religion,” said Karim al-Tamimi, the commission member.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way each year to the shrine in Karbala in memory of Imam Hussein, whose small force was surrounded by a vastly superior army and massacred in the city during the seventh century. Shiites have been making the annual trip to Karbala for years, although just how long is unclear. The processions were regularly banned during Saddam Hussein’s rule, but have since become a key element of Shiite identity in Iraq.

Pilgrims on Tuesday said they were also concerned about a curfew imposed by the Iraqi government to prevent election-related violence. Under those restrictions, which will begin Friday evening and end on Sunday, airports will be closed and people will be prohibited from crossing provincial borders.

Walking from Basra to Karbala requires crossing at least three provincial borders.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Army in Basra said Tuesday that the military had been given no specific instructions regarding the pilgrims.

“We haven’t received any orders to prevent people from walking, and we cannot force them to vote,” he said.