Iran suspends pilgrim tours to Iraq
( Reuter )- Iran has suspended pilgrim tours to Shi'ite Muslim holy sites in Iraq because of rising violence there, state television reported on Thursday.
More than 130 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in Iraq since Tuesday, when the U.S.-backed government launched an operation against Shi'ite militias in the southern city of Basra. Fighting has since spread across southern Iraq.
"In the wake of recent insecurities in Iraq, ( Iran's) haj and pilgrimage organization has suspended the dispatch of all Iranian pilgrims to the Shi'ite holy sites in Iraq until further notice," Iranian state television reported.
It said the Mehran border post had been "earmarked for the return of pilgrims who had traveled to Iraqi Shi'ite holy sites prior to the recent insecurities in that country."
The Iraqi cities of Najaf and Kerbala are home to some of holiest Shi'ite shrines. Pilgrims from Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shi'ite, flock there.
State television said that as well as suspending tours, the Interior Ministry was urging Iranians not to travel to Iraq as individuals.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini protested earlier against what he said was the fingerprinting of Iranian pilgrims entering Iraq by U.S. troops, the official IRNA news agency reported.
He said pilgrims went to Iraq under an agreement between the two neighbors and with "appropriate coordination between Iranian and Iraqi officials and (hence) there is no need for another party's interference".
The United States has accused Iran of stirring up violence in Iraq by funding, training and supplying weapons to Iraqi militias, a charge Iran dismisses. Tehran blames the presence of U.S. troops for the instability and says they should quit Iraq.