Thousands of pilgrims defy virus protocols in Iraq

Crowds of men and women defy tight security measures set up by Iraqi authorities to contain spread of coronavirus during annual pilgrimage to commemorate death of Imam al-Kadhim.

BAGHDAD - Thousands of pilgrims clad in black walked the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday, part of a weeklong procession to a revered shrine, bypassing barbed wire set up by security forces and spurring fears of another wave of coronavirus on the heels of the papal visit.

Crowds of men and women defied the tight security measures set up by Iraqi authorities to contain the spread of the virus during the annual pilgrimage, expected to reach its peak number of worshippers on Wednesday to commemorate the death of Imam al-Kadhim, a revered figure in Shiite Islam.

Separately, a grenade was tossed near the Imam Bridge in Baghdad on Monday which killed one woman and wounded 11 pilgrims. No one immediately took responsibility. The bridge is located on the Tigris River, which connects the predominately Sunni Adhamiya area to Kadhimiya, which is mostly Shiite.

Iraq is in the midst of a second wave of the coronavirus, spurred chiefly by a more infectious strain that was first discovered in the UK.

The country has imposed a full lockdown from Friday to Sunday, and partial curfew beginning at 8 p.m. and ending at 5 a.m., for the rest of the week. Non-essential businesses, as well as schools and mosques, should be closed during this time, per the rules.

But pilgrims continue on their way to the shrine despite these regulations. The event usually draws millions of pilgrims from around the world each year to Baghdad, to visit the gold-domed shrine containing the imam’s resting place.

Elsewhere, Iraqis continue to disregard safety protocols with authorities appearing largely unable to enforce them. In central Baghdad outdoor tea shops are packed with men smoking shisha, and facemasks are seldom worn.

Meanwhile, case numbers are climbing, with new infections surpassing a rate set six months ago.

At least 22 people died in Iraq on Tuesday, while 6,410 new infections recorded in a 24-hour period, according to Health Ministry statistics, topping the previous record of daily new infections which was 5,055 on September 23.

A visit to Iraq by Pope Francis, which concluded on Monday, drew concerns as infectious disease experts had questioned the wisdom of such a trip given Iraq’s rising case numbers. Crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of the pontiff across five provinces, including Baghdad, Ninevah and Irbil where a 10,000 people attended an open-air mass.