Elated Shiites, on Pilgrimage, Want U.S. Out
New York Times
Tuesday 22 April 2003
KARBALA, Iraq In an extraordinary display of the raw power of Iraq's Shiites, the country's long repressed yet dominant Islamic sect, hundreds of thousands took part for a second day in rituals at this city's holy shrine, chanting and dancing and chest-slapping.
Up to two million Shiites from Iraq, Iran and other countries were said to be converging on this holy city today to perform one of the most important rituals in the Shiite calendar for the first time in a quarter of a century.
The mass pilgrimage, banned under Saddam Hussein, carries as much political as religious significance for the Shiites, who, though they make up the majority of Iraqis, have long lived as second-class citizens under the rule of a Sunni Muslim minority. The procession has a history of turning into a political rally and many who gathered here for the festival that culminates on Wednesday were eager to express their desire to choose their own government without the interference of the United States.
"Our celebration will be perfect only when the American occupier is gone and the Iraqi people are able to rule themselves by the principles of Islam," a white-turbaned Sheik Muhammad Thamer said on Monday. Sheik Thamer is the deputy to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sestani, the country's most senior Shiite cleric.
But the overwhelming emotion on the packed streets outside the mosque housing the tomb of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the sect's founder, was euphoria at the Shiites' newfound freedom and exhilaration over the mass chanting that swept through the crowds in ritualistic mourning for Hussein's violent end 1,400 years ago.
"I cannot believe I am here today openly celebrating," said Hamid Muhammad, 53, a wheat merchant wearing a white robe and black-and-white checked head scarf. "The government used to shoot us when we tried this in the past."
The occasion marks the 40th day after Hussein's death when his family, taken captive by his killers and then pardoned, returned to his grave, now an ornate tomb beneath the gilded copper dome of the city's great mosque.
Depicted in prints as a bearded warrior astride a white horse, Hussein was the second son of Ali, the revered son-in-law of Muhammad. According to Shiite history, he was coaxed into coming to Karbala to claim leadership of the Muslim community.
When the promised popular support for his cause failed to materialize, he was left to face an army of 4,000 men with a sword in one hand and a copy of the Koran in the other.
His death is recounted and acted out in passion plays in Shiite mosques around the world on the anniversary of his death. Forty days after that anniversary, pilgrims to Karbala traditionally wail and cry and beat themselves to atone for the collective guilt of their ancestors who failed to come to Hussein's aid
This year's pilgrims, the first to come in large numbers since 1977, began arriving over the weekend and by Monday were moving lemming-like toward the center of the city. They came by car, by bus, by truck, even in one of Baghdad's shiny new police cars, many flying green flags reading "Hussein, we're coming for you." Mostly, though, they came on foot from all corners of the country. Their numbers are expected to double or triple before the self-flagellation reaches its peak on Wednesday.
"I walked all the way from Al Hendia to Karbala," said Mona Ibrahim, 35, who teaches the Koran at a primary school. "I am so excited I am able to visit Hussein now without fear."
While groups of men chanted wildly and beat themselves with ever-increasing frenzy, young boys squirted the crowds with rose water from bottles or backpack pesticide sprayers.
Men offered water to passing pilgrims from cast-iron bathtubs set up along the roads, and hawkers sold tablets of pale, compressed earth, the holy soil on which Hussein's blood was spilled. Others sold posters, some depicting Hussein pierced by arrows or his bloodied head on a pike, the Shiite equivalent of Christian depictions of the Crucifixion.
Because of the procession's potential as a political rallying point, successive governments have periodically banned it since the 1930's. During Mr. Hussein's rule many defiant pilgrims were gunned down on the road to Karbala, and just 40 days ago more than 100 pilgrims were arrested on the outskirts of the city as they tried to commemorate the anniversary of Hussein's death, residents said.
Repression of the Shiites has been punctuated by periodic uprisings, most recently under Mr. Hussein's government.
The Shiites rose up in rebellion after the 1991 gulf war at the urging of the first President Bush and took control of central and southern Iraq before the movement was crushed by Mr. Hussein's army. Scores of Shiite leaders were imprisoned or killed. After another uprising in 1998, the Shiite cleric Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr was assassinated.
Winning the Shiites' confidence and support now is among the most crucial yet difficult tasks facing the United States as it tries to form an American-friendly government from the exiled political leaders, domestic opposition figures and the remnants of Mr. Hussein's government that are now competing for power.
"The Americans are not our enemy, but they are not our friend," said a 29-year-old man sweating into a black headband between bouts of chanting. "We want an Islamic state and we need to see that the Americans intend to leave our country."
The Shiites' history of violent power struggles may work against them. Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, was killed by rivals within the prophet's inner circle in the nearby town of Kufa. The festival at Karbala is itself based on a cautionary tale that marked the split of Shiite Islam from the Sunni Muslim mainstream.
The Shiites' recent liberation from Mr. Hussein's government has already led to a shadowy power struggle among the country's remaining senior clerics, including those inside the country and those in exile.
This month the son of one of Iraq's most powerful clerics, who himself died under house arrest after the 1991 uprising, was killed at one of the Shiites' most revered shrines in the city of Najaf. Another senior cleric, Ayatollah Bakr al-Hakim, the Tehran-based leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has delayed his return to the country because of security concerns.
But many of the men and women in Karbala on Monday were filled with hope that history would not be repeated.
"We want to decide our fate by ourselves and obtain all of the things we have wanted for the past 35 years," said Jalil Shakir, an excited 29-year-old engineer from the impoverished Saddam City Shiite district in Baghdad.
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