Thousands mark Iraqi Shiite ritual

Hussein had suppressed observance of martyrdom

March 02, 2004|By Letta Tayler | Letta Tayler,NEWSDAY

BAGHDAD - Kasim Hashimian, a tailor from northern Iran, couldn't wait to participate in a key Shiite ritual of mourning unfolding this week in Iraq that had been banned for three decades by Saddam Hussein.

So rather than stand in line to have his passport checked at a border crossing, he did what hundreds of thousands of Iranians have done to attend the 10-day ceremony: He walked into Iraq illegally.

"The Iraqi border guards, they didn't care. They smiled at me," said Hashimian, 42, adding that he crossed near the southern city of Al-Kut in daylight. Asked why he didn't simply enter legally, he shrugged and said, "This was easier."

Ashura is observed for 10 days and was expected to have drawn more than 7 million worshipers to Baghdad and holy Shiite cities to the south by its culmination today. By any measure, it would be a security nightmare.

The holy Shiite city of Karbala, which along with Najaf and Baghdad has seen daily mass acts of self-flagellation for Ashura, has been hit by several deadly attacks since the U.S.-led invasion last spring.

In the bloodiest incident, a car bomb during Friday prayers in August killed 82 people, including Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - one of the most powerful and fervent Shiite parties in the country.

Supreme Council members, as well as coalition forces, say radical Sunnis are killing Shiite members to spark a religious civil war. About 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiites, but the rival Sunni branch of Islam held power under the ousted Hussein.

So far, the only casualties from the ceremony have been caused by coalition troops. On Sunday, Polish soldiers in Karbala wounded eight people when they opened fire on a bus.

Many faithful are arriving on horseback or by walking miles on their knees to participate in Ashura, which commemorates the slaying of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Islam's founder, Prophet Muhammad, in 680 AD. Imam Hussein's martyrdom sparked the split of Islam into the Sunni and Shiite sects.

For the past nine days, solemn prayers and stirring drumbeats have alternated with colorful Ashura pageants in which turbaned men riding plumed, prancing ponies re-enact the 10-day battle that led to Hussein's death.

In between, thousands of black-garbed Shiite males, from young boys to grandfathers, have marched in long lines toward their mosques, striking their shoulders with a baton of chains with every step to show their remorse over Imam Hussein's death. Today, the worshipers also will cut their foreheads with swords.

Saddam Hussein had banned all but minimal participation in the festival as part of his campaign to subjugate the Shiite majority. Now, the faithful are jubilant at being able to mark the festival.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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