By John Davison and Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen
KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - The world's largest annual religious gathering is in full swing and is posing formidable health hazards for Iraqi authorities already struggling with a spike in COVID-19 infections.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims, many without face masks and seemingly oblivious to government health guidelines, cram closely together as they queue for security checks, while giant cooling fans blow air across the crowds.
Dozens of teenagers with tanks of disinfectant on their backs frantically spray the visitors but miss many because they are completely outnumbered.
In a normal year, up to 20 million mostly Shi'ite Muslims take part in the 'Arbaeen' pilgrimage to the holy city of Kerbala to commemorate Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was slain in battle in 680 by the Muslim Caliph of the day.
This year, with Iraq already recording up to 5,000 new COVID-19 infections daily and a total death toll of nearly 10,000, authorities have barred entry to most foreign pilgrims, including some three million Iranians.
But tens of thousands, undeterred by the pandemic, have marched for days from all over Iraq to Kerbala, where Thursday marks the culmination of 40 days of mourning for Hussein.
"Managing the pilgrimage during the pandemic is a huge challenge," said officer Ihsan Hatif of the police force tasked with protecting the shrine area.
"Coordinating with the shrine offices, we've set up disinfectant stations at entrances to the city and the shrine. We're asking people to wear masks."
Hatif said Kerbala authorities had contacted leaders of some 10,000 pilgrimage groups in advance to explain the hygiene and social distancing rules.
That message had not filtered down to everyone.
"We shouldn't be afraid of coronavirus. Coronavirus should be afraid of Imam Hussein," said a maskless Hussein Rahim, who had walked 90 kilometres (60 miles) south from Baghdad.
"The earth Hussein is buried in heals, cures illness."
Others said they normally wore masks during the pandemic, but that it would be irreverent to do so on hallowed ground.
MARTYRDOM AND PEACE
For Iraqi Shi'ites, the symbolic and spiritual importance of Arbaeen chimes closely with martyrdoms suffered in their own community over recent years.
Shi'ite paramilitary groups, including factions linked to shrines, played a big part in defeating Islamic State in Iraq in 2017. Next to images of Hussein lining the roads around Kerbala are posters of Shi'ite militiamen killed fighting the militant Sunni Muslim group.
Some of those fighters are now involved in burying the COVID dead.
"Arbaeen is a message of truth, peace, culture and revolution against oppression, through Hussein," said pilgrim Yousef Ali. "We're also commemorating today's martyrs - youths who went too soon to free us from IS."
Ali said he was disappointed that the pilgrimage had thinned out so much in 2020. Tents along highways normally packed with pilgrims were half empty this year.
"It's sad that it's smaller this year... The more pilgrims that come, the more of a blessing it is."
(Editing by Gareth Jones)