Two million pilgrims swarm holy Iraqi city for Shiite festival
AFP - 1 hour 20 minutes ago
KARBALA, Iraq (AFP) - - More than two million Shiite Muslims from across the Middle East swarmed the shrine city of Karbala in central Iraq on Wednesday for the climax of the annual Ashura ceremonies amid tight security.
Weeping men and even young boys in flowing white robes marched with blood streaming down their faces after slashing their scalps open with knifes in a ritual that commemorates an imam slain 13 centuries ago.
Accompanied by drummers and horn players, other pilgrims pounded on their chests and whipped their backs with metal chains as part of the devotional self-flagellation that characterises the dramatic annual rite.
The focus of the pilgrims in the desert city of Karbala, 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of Baghdad, were two gold-domed holy shrines -- one to Imam Hussein and the other to his half-brother Imam Abbas.
More than two million pilgrims from across Iraq as well as from Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan and Tanzania have streamed into Karbala, said Sheikh Nameh al-Salman, a city official.
The rituals, which began 10 days ago and reached a frenzied pinnacle on Wednesday, mark the holiest days for Shiites in a commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein, who was killed by the armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680.
Tradition holds that Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and the third of 12 imams in Shiite Islam, was decapitated and his body mutilated by Yazid's armies in Karbala -- revenge for refusing to pay homage to the caliph.
To show remorse for not saving Hussein, Shiite volunteers whip themselves with metals chains while some cut their scalps with knives as they chant his name on the way to the two shrines.
Others carry models of wooden ships and little lamps that symbolise Hussein as their guiding light or salvation. Megaphones blast the poetic incantations of the battle as green- and red-robed horsemen gallop through the streets.
Second only in importance to the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for Shiites, observance of Ashura has drawn millions since the fall of Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion.
"We are here because of our belief and we are trying to do something so that Hussein will triumph in the end," said a 45-year-old pilgrim, blood streaming down his face, who gave his name only as Jawad.
Basheer Najem, 46, another pilgrim, proudly showed off his bleeding head.
"I have been doing this for the past nine years. I don't feel any pain. After doing this I feel that have I fulfilled my duty."
After prayer, the pilgrims performed a spectacular foot race in Karbala between the mausoleums of Hussein and Abbas, known as the "Twarij" and the last symbolic act of the pilgrimage.
But the swarming crowds pose a serious security challenge and in the past the ceremonies have been easy targets for Sunni militants, prompting officials this year to mobilise 30,000 extra police.
Coordinated suicide bombings in Baghdad and Kerbala during the first post-Saddam Ashura in 2004 killed more than 160 people and marked the beginning of a bloody sectarian conflict that swept the country until early 2008.
Security was also tight for Ashura rituals in the capital Baghdad, where a suicide bomber blew up in a crowd of pilgrims queuing at security gates leading to an important Shiite shrine on Sunday, killing 35 people and wounding dozens.
The threat of violence did not however deter thousands of faithful at the Kadhamiyah tomb in Baghdad.
"I wished that I had lived at the time of Imam Hussein so I could have helped him," Haidar al-Hussein, 35, said.
Baghdad officials had reported the bomber was a woman but said on Tuesday further investigation had revealed the bomber was a man.
Nevertheless, officials in Baghdad had taken the unusual step of banning women from the Musa Kadhamiyah shrine in the north of the Iraqi capital until the end of Ashura.
Major General Qassim Atta, Iraq's spokesman for security in Baghdad, said the decision to ban women from entering the area was aimed at facilitating the flow of people.
"Searching women takes much longer," he told AFP.
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More than two million Shiite Muslims from across the Middle East swarmed the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala for the climax of the annual Ashura ceremonies amid tight security.
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