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entering karbala’s holy city
‘getting a visa to US would be easier’

Ibrahim al-Jibouri
Karbala’s famous old city is home to two of Islam’s most important shrines and attracts millions of tourists. It is also surrounded by high walls and under tight security. But that security is now…
11.09.2013  |  Karbala

For more than seven years most vehicles have been prevented from entering the old city in Karbala. This is mainly because the old city contains several extremely important sites for Shiite Muslims, including the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, which some devotees believe might be one of the gates to heaven.

However because of the heavy security restrictions on Karbala’s old city, which is surrounded by security barriers, getting in there is almost as difficult as getting into paradise. And it seems that the restrictions are killing off regular life in the old city.

Anyone who is not a resident in the area and who wishes to drive into the old city with a car or motorbike needs a special permit. The process involved in obtaining such a permit takes a very long, applicants complain. Additionally a spokesperson for the Karbala police say that those who want to enter the old city with their vehicles again, must obtain special permits every single time they want to drive in.

It was also possible to apply for a special badge if they wanted to keep driving in regularly. But again, these took months to access. Anyone who leaves the city and who doesn’t have a badge like this will find it very difficult to get back in.

This was not only to prevent terrorist attacks, Ahmed al-Hasnawi, a spokesman for the Karbala police, admitted, but to stop too much traffic from getting into the old city which was already crowded with all the tourists coming here.

The whole idea of separating the city like this came from the authorities in charge of the two most important shrines in Karbala’s old city, suggests local lawyer Mohammed Nasir. It was supposed to be a little bit like the Vatican in Rome, which is a city within a city as well.

However the security restrictions also cause a lot of disruption to everyday life in this part of Karbala. Residents who live in the old city often have trouble returning home. Although they all have the special badges required to enter the area, they feel they are living an isolated life that is similar to those who reside inside Baghdad’s legendary, fortified Green Zone. And even employees working for state institutions here can never get to work on time.

Zuhair Salim is employed by the local government. But he says that every day he arrives at work late because of the rigmarole of security getting into the old city. “I ended up asking to be transferred,” he complains. “Just so that I didn’t have to go through security every day and so I didn’t have to walk such a long way to get to my office.”

Hashim al-Qazwini is another state employee and he told NIQASH he applied for what he jokingly describes as “the magical badge” six months ago. He says he even got approval from the city’s governor – this is fairly unusual - but that even he had not received his badge yet.

“Things would go faster if I applied for a visa to live in the US or the UK,” al-Qazwini jokes.

“The old city has become completely isolated from other parts of Karbala,” says Abbas Mohsen, who runs a clothing shop in the old city. “No vehicles can come in and that has a major impact on business. We are being forced to find new premises outside the old city because it’s just too difficult to bring goods in here without prior approval – and these take such a long time. Additionally the number of people shopping here has really dropped – they prefer to go shopping in malls and markets elsewhere.”

Taxi drivers with the special badges can operate inside the old city. Usually what happens is that the un-badged taxi drivers outside the old city will drop customers off at the old city gates. The visitors go through security and take another cab to tour around inside the old city.

“I got a badge because I am a resident of this area,” explains Kamal, a taxi driver who works inside the old city, who preferred to give only his first name. ”I gave security information and I submitted a guarantee of funds from a bank, of about five million dinars [around US$4,200]. I also had to submit a letter of recommendation from the head of our neighbourhood, as well as references from people I know in the police and security forces.”

Despite the special badge though, Kamal says it’s still hard for taxi drivers to make a living inside the old city. The free buses which take visitors between the two major shrines are a problem, he says. “The police and army staff also compete with us,” he explains. “They use their cars to drive people around after they finish work. And we just can’t compete with them because they have access to almost everywhere in the city.”

The old city is home to a number of important institutions and there’s no doubt that the security wall keeps them safer than they would be outside the old city. But even this is a problem – because locals can’t get to the government departments or banks as they need to. Hassan Hadi, an engineer working for the Karbala city authorities, says relocating some of those important offices to a new complex currently being built on the Karbala-Najaf highway is a good idea: It’s being built so that locals will have easier access, he explains.

“It would be better to keep the old city as a place for religious visitors and for government buildings,” Hadi says.

Because despite all of the above issues, it doesn’t seem that the old city in Karbala will open up any time soon. “It’s a very important area to keep safe,” Salem Hussein, an officer in one of the old city’s security forces, explained. “There are shrines, state-owned banks, government departments and hotels for tourists. The old city has huge gates which can be closed off in any emergency situation – this is done through the cooperation of the security forces and the religious authorities. And because of the current instability in the country neither the government nor the religious authorities are going to want to open up the old city in the near future.”