By Jason Billington, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment Public Affairs OfficeDecember 29, 2010
KARBALA PROVINCE, Iraq -- As Shiite pilgrims slowly filtered out of religious shrines in Karbala, Iraq, Dec. 17, the quiet passing of the Muslim religious holiday of Ashoura made a loud statement about the capabilities of Iraqi Security Forces in the area.
As many as 4 million pilgrims took part in the 2010 Ashoura, including 200,000 foreigners from 24 separate countries, according to Iraqi estimates. The security of Ashoura participants and the areas surrounding holy shrines in Karbala was the sole responsibility of Iraqi Security Forces, who assumed the security lead for the country as part of Operation New Dawn Sept. 1.
The Muslim holiday of Ashoura, translated "the tenth day," commemorates the death of Imam Al-Hussein, the grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century. Ashoura is particularly significant to Shia Muslims, who make pilgrimages in order to congregate at holy shrines in Muslim holy cities like Karbala and Najaf.
The influx of vast numbers of pilgrims into Iraq presents unique security challenges to the Iraqi Security Forces, specifically for the crowds of people who gather around the Imam Al-Hussein and Imam Al-Abbas shrines at Karbala.
In previous years the holiday has occasionally been marred by insurgent attempts to disrupt Ashoura gatherings and destabilize the country. In March 2004, two bombs in Baghdad and Karbala killed more than 170 people.
Clashes between sectarian groups in January of 2008 during Ashoura resulted in the deaths of 263 people in Karbala. No such violence could be seen on the streets of Karbala this year.
U.S. forces assumed a supporting role in the security for Ashoura, advising key ISF leaders and providing humanitarian assistance for participants during the commemorations.
"The 8th Iraqi Army executed a well-crafted plan to distribute food to pilgrims during Ashoura," said Maj. Tad Gilbert, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment civil affairs officer. "Third ACR supported the ISF with additional food supplies to augment their distribution plan."
While Ashoura was visibly marked by throngs of people honoring Muslim religious traditions in peace, the Iraqi military and police were busy behind the scenes responding to insurgent threats.
"Ashoura was a very successful operation," said Iraqi Lt. Gen. Othman Al Ghanimi, commander of the 8th Iraqi Army, and charged as the lead in Karbala during the security operations surrounding the holiday.
Eighty suspected insurgents were captured and numerous explosives were dismantled by members of Iraqi Security Forces in and around Karbala, said Othman.
The strength of Iraqi Security Forces has become paramount as Jan. 1 marks the last year of U.S. forces involvement under the existing security agreement in Iraq.
"The performance of Iraqi Security Forces, particularly during Ashoura, has been nothing less than impressive," said Col. Reginald E. Allen, commander of 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which has the responsibility of advising and assisting Iraqi military and police in Karbala and four other provinces across southern Iraq. "The ISF ability to secure such a large event with no attacks for the first time in seven years with little assistance from U.S. forces is clear evidence that the ISF is fully capable of securing the Iraqi people."
As a significant Shiite Muslim religious holiday ended Dec. 18, it was not the tested crisis response of Iraqi Security Forces that marked its successful passing, but the lack of any crisis at all.