KERBALA, Iraq - In September, a senior Iranian commander made an unannounced visit to one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest sites in the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala. Hassan Pelarak, a top officer in the Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, had recently been sanctioned by the U.S. for weapons smuggling. He was checking in on a construction project led by a firm he owns together with other Revolutionary Guards, a foundation linked to Iran's Supreme Leader. This foundation too is under U.S. sanctions. The vast, $600 million expansion at the Imam Hussein shrine, which is revered as the place of martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, will swell the capacity of what is already the world's largest annual pilgrimage, dwarfing the Hajj to Saudi Arabia's Mecca. It is the biggest development at the shrine in 300 years. An Iraqi worker at the site sent Reuters pictures of Pelarak, wearing a hard hat and sporting a blue surgical mask, having his temperature taken before entering. The visit, confirmed by an Iraqi employee of the foundation, was not reported by Iranian or Iraqi media. But his visit was not unusual. Pelarak and other Guards commanders overseeing the project freely drop in, workers say, and are given quick tours by the exclusively Iranian companies and engineers they have contracted to carry out the work. Qassem Soleimani, the late Quds Force commander who spearheaded Iran's military and political strategy across the region, was filmed touring the project in 2018, 18 months before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike. His successor, Esmail Ghaani, made an unannounced visit to the shrine two weeks after Pelarak, said an Iranian source in Kerbala. Day and night, Iranian labourers fill in a 40-metre deep, 50,000-square-metre crater next to the shrine with steel girders and cement brought from Iran. The multi-storey buildings they are erecting will contain ablution stations, a museum and a library. Millions of predominantly Shi'ite pilgrims from across the Islamic world will access the Hussein shrine via a large road tunnel. It is one of the largest of the multi-million dollar projects that the Revolutionary Guards-owned Kawthar foundation (Kowsar in Persian) is leading to develop religious tourism in Iraq and Syria,
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