MEHRAN, Iran: At the border town of Mehran between Iran and Iraq, a sea of pilgrims surges forwards, en route to one of the biggest religious pilgrimages on the planet.
Iranian organisers say more than 1.8 million Iraqi visas have been issued for Iranians this year for the Arbaeen pilgrimage which culminates on Tuesday as the devout head, many by foot, to Karbala and one of the holiest sites of Shiite Islam, the shrine of Imam Hussein.
Men and women, young and old, toddlers in prams and elderly pushed in wheelchairs -- they converge from all over the Islamic republic.
The pilgrims stream past tents, called "mokebs", which hand out free food ranging from scrambled eggs to boiled turnips. Full meals are served at midday and in the evenings.
The crossing stays open around the clock, but blankets and tents are provided for anyone needing a rest.
Every few metres there is a free shoeshine, and when the pilgrims take off their shoes the attendant kisses their feet as a sign of respect: for Shiites the Arbaeen march is so holy that just serving the pilgrims is thought to bring divine reward.
Arbaeen marks the 40th day after Imam Hussein´s martyrdom, with the devout marching on foot for all or part of the way to Karbala.
State institutions offer free services and food to pilgrims alongside those of the public, while the national broadcaster gives wall-to-wall coverage for a fortnight before Arbaeen, which falls on October 30 this year.
The march was forbidden for many years, under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who fought a devastating war with Iran in the 1980s. Restrictions were only lifted after his downfall in 2003.
With the formation of a new Iraqi state, where the post of prime minister is held by a Shiite, the march quickly became one of the most popular religious pilgrimages in the world.
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