Shi'ites in Iraq mark Ashura in show of force
Reuters - Thursday, January 8
By Mohammed Abbas
BAGHDAD - Shi'ites in Iraq gathered in their thousands to observe an annual ritual of mourning on Wednesday, an event that has become a show of strength for a majority whose public worship was repressed by Saddam Hussein.
Ashura, the most important day in the Shi'ite calendar, was largely peaceful, guarded by a heavy police and army presence three days after a suicide bomber killed 35 pilgrims outside a Baghdad shrine.
At processions of thousands at Baghdad's Kadhamiya shrine and at other holy sites in Iraq to mourn the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, men sobbed, cut their scalps with daggers and whipped their backs with chains.
The ritual took place under unprecedented security after Sunday's attack, with thousands of police and military out.
A road leading to a golden domed Mosque at the north Baghdad shrine, scene of the bloody bomb attack Sunday, was again spattered with blood -- but this time it streamed from pilgrims cutting gashes in their heads: a traditional rite of mourning.
Thousands chanted "Haider, Haider" another name for Imam Ali, Imam Hussein's father, to commemorate the slaying of his son in the 7th century battle of Kerbala.
Groups of men, some riding horses, dressed up in medieval military outfits with spiked helmets and chainmail to re-enact the battle between followers of Hussein and his enemy Yazid. Others waved green and red flags. Women wailed.
Huge vats of stew steamed over wood fires on the roadside and a canal was died red to symbolise Hussein's blood.
In a bid to tighten security, authorities had forbidden women from entering the entire district of Kadhimiya surrounding the Baghdad shrine, because it is hard for the mostly male police force to search them, but Wednesday the ban was lifted. A gun attack on pilgrims in another part of Baghdad late Tuesday underscored the tough challenge of securing such festivals. Gunmen fired on a procession of Shi'ite pilgrims in southeastern Baghdad's Zaafaraniya district, wounding four.
Ashura is the most important and dramatic annual rite distinguishing Shi'ite Muslims from Sunnis and it has become a show of strength for Iraq's long-repressed majority sect.
"In Saddam's time, we were cut off from our history, our culture. Now that's changed. Now we can know our heritage," said Jasim Mohammed, an engineer.
Sunni militants have frequently staged attacks on pilgrims, beginning with coordinated suicide bombings in Baghdad and Kerbala during the first post-Saddam Ashura in 2004 that killed more than 160 people and heralded the sectarian bloodshed that ravaged the country in 2006 and 2007.
But like Baghdad, the southern holy city of Kerbala was calm Wednesday, thanks partly to some 20,000 security forces manning checkpoints with bomb detectors and banning cars.
Local officials estimated 1.5 million people marched through the city, about 50,000 of them pilgrims from Shi'ite Iran. Men flailed themselves with chains and adults helped young children, some as young as three, whip their backs with little chains.
Arabs and Turkmen in the volatile northern city of Kirkuk also held a march, under watch of Iraqi military helicopters.
"Until now, there has been no security breach," said police commander Brigadier-General Adel Zain al-Abideen.
Many pilgrims said they felt safe in Iraq, now that the government had stamped its authority on formerly lawless places.
"It's different from the year before because the government is getting stronger. When the government is strong, terrorism will stop," said Sadeq Jaffer, a construction worker in Baghdad.
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