The project to redevelop the Old City, which contains two of Shiite Muslims’ most holy sites, the tomb of Imam al-Hussein and his brother Abbas, the two sons of the fourth Caliph Ali Bin Abi Talib, has provoked great controversy.
The two shrines, known as "al-Haramayn," are visited each year by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from countries including Iran, India, Pakistan, Lebanon and the Gulf states, not to mention the millions of visitors from inside Iraq.
According to Haydar al-Asadi, branch manager of the Global Technical Research Centre, which organized a competition to choose the best design for a new city centre, "land surrounding the sacred thresholds will be expanded and three to four yards along the two shrines will be paved, in addition to the central square.”
Al-Asadi told Niqash that "new squares are designed to accommodate larger number of old city visitors, especially during Shiites religious occasions… when millions of people march towards the city." He pointed out that the new city centre design is expected to be ratified by the Ministry of Municipalities in the next few days.
Karbala’s previous local government sought to boost foreign investment in tourism in order to accommodate the growing number of visitors. However, it is clear that the city’s old hotels and narrow streets can no longer accommodate the millions of pilgrims visiting the city.
‘Al-Kawthar’, an Iranian company, won the competition for its design, provoking local anger as the plan recommends the demolition of hundreds of hotels, houses and shops around the shrines.
The inhabitants of Karbala, especially these living in the city centre and owners of hotels and shops, fiercely oppose the project, saying it will detrimentally affect their lives and businesses.
Those who oppose the project have demonstrated on several occasions, carrying banners contesting the project and describing it as being "randomly planned." Sabah Diauddin, a lawyer and one of the protestors said that "Karbala city centre development project is a random one because it was designed in two months time – while a hotel design would require at least 6 months!”
Diauddin describes the project as “immature” and that it “will lead to big financial and moral losses for the city.”
Ali Jassam, another protester said that "all nations of the world preserve their cultural heritage and their old cities; the old city of Karbala is a great ancient civilization. Narrow alleys, small shops and old buildings carry the flavour of the past and it is not easy to demolish this past that gives the city its significance and reflects its history.”
Ali Saud, a furniture dealer who owns a shop next to the ‘Qiblat al-Abbas’ gate, said that merchants do not oppose the project as such, but they have doubts regarding the “the extent to which the executive authorities will be able to provide them with other options to compensate for their loss.”
However, some citizens in Karbala believe that it is important to develop the city, even if such development requires the demolition of building and facilities that date back decades. According to one local, Salam Abdul-Amir, “developing Karbala will create new employment opportunities.” Hameed Jawad, another citizen, said that "there are many old, falling down buildings that need to be demolished if Karbala is to become a more attractive place.”
Although Karbala is a sacred city for Shiites across the world, some religious figures are backing the development project.
"The holy city of Karbala, with its religious and tourist sites, needs to be developed and expanded to meet the growing needs of its people in terms of various services and to meet the needs of its visitors," said Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai during last Friday’s prayers at the Imam al-Hussein shrine.
In order to preserve the traditional and religious nature of markets and religious sites in the city, al-Karbalai suggested that alternative markets be constructed.
The city council says that the development plan will go ahead despite the opposition.
Aqeel al-Khazali, chairman of Karbala Council’s public relations committee told Niqash that the project will be implemented, by force if necessary, once it is approved by the Ministry of Municipalities.
Al-Khazali stressed the importance of the plan “as a basic factor for economic and construction progress.” He noted that “all those who will be partially affected by the project shall receive fair compensation.”