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Iran asks citizens to avoid travel to Iraq

Tehran, Jan 16, IRNA -- Iran on Sunday advised its citizens to avoid travel to Iraq, warning them of the hazardous security situation in the neighboring war-wracked state.

"Given...the unsuitable security situation in Iraq, the faithful Iranian people are asked to seriously refrain from traveling to that country," the Iranian Interior Ministry said in an advisory.

Most Iranian travel for pilgrimage to Iraq, home to the shrines of five imams revered by Shiites, including the mausoleums of Imam Ali (AS) in Najaf and Imam Hussein (AS) in Karbala.

The two Muslim neighbors, with Shi'a majority populations, have come a long way since the ouster of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to regulate pilgrims' visits into their respective cities.

Last month, Iran banned its nationals from traveling to Iraq after blasts killed 66 people in the Shi'a pilgrimage cities of Karbala and Najaf.

"All borders of Iran with Iraq are now closed and movement in or out prohibited until further notice," said a police announcement.

"Due to the worsening situation in Iraq... travel to Iraq's holy cities by Iranian nationals is banned," the statement said, adding that the ban would remain in force 'until the security situation improves'.

Authorities in the Islamic Republic have regularly warned against illegal trips to the war-torn country because of raging conflicts across Iraq.

Last March, a series of coordinated bombings turned a Shiite mourning ceremony into carnage, in which 171 people were killed in Karbala and Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Iraq's chaotic situation has landed hundreds of Iranians in jail, with their relatives complaining of their dire situation in custody.

Last month, Tehran MP Fatemeh Rahbar said some 1,500 Iranian pilgrims held in Iraqi prisons had been released.

The announcement came days after a group of the prisoners' relatives gathered outside the Foreign Ministry building in Tehran, calling for their release.

Rahbar said the Iraqi police had arrested some of the Iranian citizens even as their trip to the Shi'a holy sites was legal, while a few others had illegally crossed the border into the war-wracked country.

"We met with the families of the pilgrims, who said their relatives, held in Kut and Badreh prisons, had no access to warm water and were only allowed to take bath with cold water every 20 days," she said.

"This was coordinated with the Foreign Ministry official and it was then that these individuals were freed all, except for few people whose trip to Iraq was illegal and they are still held at the country's prisons," the MP added.

Rahbar said Iranian prisoners were held in cells 'where there is no enough room even for sitting' and where cases of 'various diseases' are rampant.

The Iranian inmates are also suffering from lack of 'suitable and warm clothing', and they 'have to use cardboard instead of blankets' for sleeping, she added.

Rahbar, a member of the parliament's cultural commission, stated that Tehran had asked international bodies, including the United Nations, to try to properly supervise the situation of prisons in Iraq and resolve the problems of the inmates.

She also called on Iranian security officials and police to take necessary measures, preventing pilgrims from making illegal trips to Iraq.

... Payvand News - 1/16/05 ... --

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