At least 31 people were killed amid a stampede in the Iraqi city of Karbala, where thousands of worshipers gathered Tuesday to commemorate the Shia Muslim holy day of Ashura, officials said.
Another 100 people were wounded in the incident, which occurred during a series of festivals and events to celebrate the most important day on the Shia calendar. Health ministry spokesman Safir al-Badr told Al Jazeera the victim count is expected to climb.
Hundreds of Shia pilgrims gather at the site, located about 60 miles from Baghdad, every year to reflect on the death of Hussein, Prophet Mohammad’s grandson. He was killed in battle during the 7th century, an event that solidified the split between the Islamic faith’s Sunni and Shiite sects.
The anniversary is marked with mourning rituals, passion plays re-enacting Hussein’s martyrdom and a practice called the “Tuwairij Run,” which sees scores and scores of pilgrims racing through the streets toward Hussein’s gold-domed shrine.
Authorities are currently investigating what triggered the stampede, but a spokesman for Karbala Province’s media office told BBC one person took a tumble – causing others to fall as well. The Associated Press meanwhile reported the deadly stampede started when a walkway collapsed.
“Today is arguably the most important day for Shia here in Iraq,” according to Al Jazeera reporter Charles Stratford, who is in Karbala.
“We spoke to members of the holy shrine authority earlier and they said more than three million visitors were in the city today for this event. Basically people fell over as they went around the tomb of Hussein, and the sheer number of people has resulted in many people being crushed."