Baghdad: More than 17 million Shiite pilgrims traveled to Karbala, south of Baghdad, for the Arbaeen religious festival at the end of a 40-day mourning period on the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, in 680 AD, Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obaidi said.
The number of pilgrims was high, compared with the 15 million Shiites attending the ceremony in recent years, al-Obaidi told reporters here Thursday, and added that the security plan was going well.
Despite his claim, a security source told EFE that one civilian had been killed and three others were injured when a mortar shell struck an area just 5 miles (about 8 km)west of the holy city.
Similar attacks against the Shuhadaa and Al-Nasr districts caused no casualties.
Obaidi noted that 4.5 million of the pilgrims are non-Iraqi foreigners and that the total is expected to rise by Saturday.
The defense ministry has deployed more than 29,000 military troops and security forces to protect the festival site and the caravans that are heading to Karbala.
According to Shiite tradition, Hussein and his followers were killed when they tried to free the people of the region from the "tyranny" of the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid Ibn Muawiyah.
The Battle of Karbala marked the beginning of the schism between the Sunni and Shiite denominations of Islam.