RELIGIOUS tour operators have been urged to cancel all trips to Iraq amid violent unrest in the southern part of the country.
Thousands of Bahrainis are expected to travel this week to Najaf and Karbala to mark the Ashoora festivities, despite concerns that protests could spread from Basra to other cities.
Unidentified assailants fired four rockets at Basra Airport yesterday, as the death toll from several days of protests over poor public services climbed to 12.
Bahrain’s Ambassador to Iraq Salah Al Malki yesterday urged Bahraini tour operators to cancel all scheduled trips until the end of the religious season in a bid to ensure the safety of Bahraini travellers.
He also called on Bahrainis in Najaf and Karbala to return immediately – expressing the embassy’s commitment to ease all procedures for the quick and safe return of citizens.
However, religious tour operators told the GDN that around 8,000 people were expected to leave the country starting from today.
“People have to listen because it is for their own good as we work to ensure that they are safe and out of harm’s way in light of the ongoing unrest in Basra that could expand to other areas,” Mr Al Malki told the GDN.
“There is no exaggeration – we want to ensure the safety of Bahrainis and out of the spirit of responsibility they should immediately leave, and we will help with all procedures, whether those travelling by buses or flights.
“We received calls from tour operators planning to travel during Ashoora this week and Arbae’en next month and we told them to wait for further assessment of the situation and until peace and order is restored.
“I hope that Bahrainis will cancel all planned trips to Iraq as the circumstances do not require any defiance.”
Ashoora marks the death anniversary of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed, while Arbae’en marks the 40th day of mourning.
Anwar Al Aqeela Religious Tours owner and managing director Isa Ramadan confirmed that 15 buses filled with travellers from different tour operators will depart Bahrain today.
“Our ambassador in Iraq is a caring and considerate person who takes the well-being of Bahrainis as a priority, but in this situation concern is based on speculation that the unrest could spill from Basra to other cities,” said Mr Ramadan.
“We have 15 buses from several operators leaving on Sunday with similar numbers going over in the next 12 days.
“Around 8,000 Bahrainis are expected to be in Iraq in Ashoora and this shows that people don’t want to cancel, they are eager to go.”
Bahrain’s largest religious tour operator Al Kadhem also said that no one has come forward to cancel their travel plans.
“There are no plans to cancel and things are going ahead as scheduled,” said co-owner Zakriya Al Kadhem.
“Ashoora represents a strong belief system to many people and they won’t care even if Iraq was on fire, so it is difficult to argue with anyone on this.
“My booking records show that we are overbooked already until the end of the Ashoora festivities, with many on the waiting list.
“Even when the Islamic State had a stronghold in parts of Iraq people were travelling to the holy cities.”
Iraq’s main southern city has been rocked by protests since Tuesday, with demonstrators setting ablaze the government building, the Iranian consulate and the offices of militias and political parties close to Tehran after the hospitalisation of 30,000 people who had drunk polluted water.
Residents have also been complaining of water and electricity shortages, corruption and a lack of jobs.
The health ministry said 12 people had been killed since Tuesday and 50 – 48 civilians and two policemen – injured. It did not give the circumstances of the deaths.