WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2016 – The death toll at last year’s Hajj, in Saudi Arabia, topped 2,177 individuals, according to Al Jazeera; however, in war-torn Iraq the Shiite commemoration of Arbaeen had a remarkable fatality count of zero, despite realistic and continuous threats from both ISIS and Al Qaeda.
This year’s Hajj count was between two and three million attendees, whereas the Arbaeen procession featured as many as 22 million attendees, according to the Washington Post.
Karbala Governor Aqil al-Turaihi said on Wednesday that by the end of the pilgrimage on Thursday, an estimated 20 million devotees will have gone through Karbala, setting a new record,
said the Al Arabiya newspaper.
Shiite Muslims participate in both the Hajj and the Arbaeen; however, Sunni Muslims largely stick to Hajj, eschewing the Arbaeen commemoration. The Hajj, Islam’s annual gathering in the Islamic holy cities of Makkah and Medina in Saudi Arabia, hosts between two and three million Muslims annually. The Hajj ceremonies are managed by the ultra-conservative Salafi sect, headed by the Saudi Royal Family. Arbaeen is primarily a Shiite commemoration in Iraq and it marks a mourning period for the death of Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. The Arbaeen commemoration is managed by the Iraqi government and the offices of the Grand Ayatollahs in Iraq, with coordination by local bordering countries.
The Washington Post also reported “Iraqi officials said security was increased this year, with operations coordinated between the Interior Ministry, Shiite militias and Iranian advisers. The Islamic State group has repeatedly targeted Iraq’s Shiite majority, viewing them as apostates deserving of death.”
ISIS clerics have issued harrowing threats to Shia Muslims in Iraq. In one horrific sermon this past July, an ISIS preacher said:
By Allah, all we have in store for you is slaughter. Allah willing, we shall slaughter you like sheep. We are ready for you, and we have plenty of time. We shall confront you in Baghdad, Allah willing. We shall confront you in defiled Karbala, Allah willing. We shall confront you in disgusting Najaf, Allah willing.
Thus far, ISIS has been unable to penetrate the Najaf and Karbala, two cities in the heart of the Shiite region of Iraq. ISIS was able to carry out a bomb attack in Baghdad, days after the commemoration, it killed a handful of civilians.
Critics believe that the high death toll in Saudi Arabia is a result of systematic mismanagement and incompetence on the part of Saudi officials. Commentators note that the notion that Iraq and local governments could host a significantly larger logistical event than Saudis, that similarly consisted of millions of Muslims from different countries, with varying ethnicities, languages and cultures, without a single fatality is significant evidence that the Saudi government is engaging in mishandling of the important Islamic ceremonies of Hajj.
The deaths at Hajj this year were due to an “unexpected” stampede, which hundreds of eyewitnesses state occurred because Saudi authorities inexplicably closed a variety of exits during a critical Hajj ceremony, which resulted in a disruption of the flow of foot traffic.
Although Saudi officials painted the episode as an unusual occurrence, the Hajj has seen several stampedes in recent years. Stampede related deaths have been a regular occurrence under the royal families’ control:
– 1990: 1,426 deaths from a stampede near Arafat
– 1994: 270 stampede related deaths*
– 1998: 180 pilgrims were trampled in a stampede*
– 2001: 35 pilgrims killed in a stampede*
– 2003: 14 more killed in a stampede*
– 2004: 251 killed in stampede*
– 2006: 364 stampede deaths*
– 2015: More than 2,000 killed in the worst stampede incident in Saudi history*
* – The stampedes in 1994, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2015 occurred in the exact same location and under largely similar circumstances.
Saudi Arabia’s ruler, King Salman, ordered an investigation into the stampede in September; however, after four months, there have been no results or progress in the investigation. To date, not a single reform or change has been made to Saudi’s hajj administration, and no root cause has been established for the deadly accident. Neighboring countries have filed complaints with the United Nations over the loss of their citizens in this accident. Saudi officials refuse to comment.