Iraqi authorities on Tuesday enforced a two-day ban on women visiting a shrine in Baghdad despite revealing that a suicide bomber who killed 35 people on Sunday was a man and not a woman as initially stated.
The ban was imposed as part of a security clampdown around a pilgrimage by 2 million people to the city’s most famous Shiite tomb.
“In order to organize the entry of pilgrims to Kadhimiyah and to guarantee their movement in the town, the decision has been taken to permit entry to Kadhimiyah only to men and to male pilgrims,” the center in charge of security operations in Baghdad said in a statement.
The ban applies on Tuesday and yesterday for the culmination of the Ashura ceremonies commemorating the martyrdom in 680 AD of the Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed.
It covers the area in a busy market district surrounding the tomb of Musa al-Khadim, the seventh Shiite imam shrine, one of the sites most revered by Shiites.
Major General Qassim Atta, Iraq’s spokesman for security in Baghdad, said the decision to ban women from entering the area was aimed at facilitating the flow of people.
“Searching women takes much longer. That is why we took this decision to prevent women from outside Kadhamiyah entering,” he said during a security tour of the area.
A Baghdad police officer working with Atta said that the decision was taken because of a severe shortage of female security personnel.
Among those hit by the ban was Zahra Mamoud, who had made the trip to the tomb with her husband and children.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Go home or wait for them to perhaps let me through?”
Only women who can prove they live in the district are allowed through the checkpoints.
On Sunday a suicide bomber blew himself up on Sunday at the security gate near the entry of the tomb, killing at least 35 people, many of them Iranian pilgrims, and wounding 80.
Atta said that the bomber was a man, not a woman, and must have been lurking in Kadhamiyah for a while.
“The man who blew himself up was living in the area, maybe a hotel and therefore he did not go through the checkpoints,” Atta said.
“He must have been in the area for a month or so and has been hiding the explosive belt with him,” he added.
Since the start of the month of Muharram, hundreds of thousands of people have embarked on pilgrimages to holy shrines in Iraq, mainly in the central cities of Karbala and Najaf, south of Baghdad.
Last year two million devout Shiites went to Karbala for the annual Ashura ceremonies, which are characterised by processions of wailing men beating their chests and engaging in devotional self-flagellation.
The ceremonies have been targeted by Sunni insurgents in the past, prompting the government to ramp up security, but many Iraqis have said more needs to be done to guarantee pilgrims’ safety.