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The Iranian shrine city of Mashhad has much to offer visiting Iraqis wanting to escape violence at home - but locals have mixed views about their guests. The ticket agent at the gate in Mehrabad airport, Tehran, is irate. The men, some wearing unassuming pants and shirts and others sporting more traditional Arab dress, search for somewhere to set their baggage down and tie some string around it. Cheerful, attractive flight attendants politely ask standing passengers to take their seats so others can pass.
The Iranian businessman sitting next to me, a resident of Tehran, tells me he has no love for the Iraqis either. Iranians might have engaged in such a ritual up until just a few years ago, but now it seems like the number of Iranians who observe pre-flight prayers lessens with each passing day. Upon arrival in Mashhad, second most populous city and home to some of its most sacred sites, Iranian and Iraqi passengers alike are handed golden branches at the gate.
The young girls staffing the kiosks usually speak enough broken Arabic to hammer out a deal with the Iraqis, who speak their own broken Farsi. Since the escalation of the Iraqi violence in and the appearance of Isis, the so-called Islamic state group, and its capture of a swathe of the country, the number of Iraqi Shia pilgrims to Iran has risen fast.
However, government figures suggest that the number of Iraqi visitors to Mashhad could be much higher, as in Saeed Ohadi, president of the Hajj and Pilgrimage Association, a department in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, said that 1. An official at Hashemi Nejad international airport in Mashhad believes that the number of Iraqis coming on a pilgrimage to the city has risen exponentially since the rise of Isis.
A few taxi drivers camped out near the airport exit are keen to express their opinions. They too believe that both the number of Iraqi visitors and the time they spend in Mashhad have increased.