Two of the Muslim world's most sacred places, both of them closely connected to Islam's reverence for martyrdom, lie in the path of the American forces advancing toward Baghdad. Major damage or civilian casualties in either place could incite new Muslim anger at America.
Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, was brutally killed at Karbala, on the Euphrates River about 55 miles southwest of Baghdad. Al Najaf, about 160 miles from the capital, holds the gold-domed tomb of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
Ali, who had claimed the leadership of the faithful after Muhammad's death in 632 A.D, was murdered in 661 A.D. in a mosque in the city of Kufa, near al Najaf. His shrine at al Najaf is a pilgrimage site for the estimated 1.2 billion Muslims around the world, especially Shias.
Ali's murder by a rebel Islamic sect led to the religion's split into the Shia and Sunni branches. The two continue to dispute who is the rightful leader of Islam, but all Muslims revere Ali.
Shia Muslims, who dominate neighboring Iran and are the majority in Iraq, believe that Ali and the other direct descendants of Muhammad should have succeeded Muhammad as the leader of the faithful, and they consider Ali one of Islam's first martyrs.
Nineteen years after Ali's death, another seminal event in Islamic history occurred at Karbala. Hussein, Ali's son and the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, was brutally killed, after a far superior army surrounded his family.
Hussein, like his father, claimed to be the rightful leader of the Muslim faithful. But a man named Yazid had also claimed the title and commanded a powerful army. The two men met at Karbala. Surrounded and without water, Hussein walked onto the battlefield and pleaded for mercy, holding his infant son in his arms as a sign of his vulnerability and sincerity. Hussein and the baby were slaughtered, as was most of his family, in an event that Shia Muslims commemorate each year during Ashura, the 10th month of the Islamic calendar.
Shias call Hussein the "Master of Martyrs," and the story of his death at Karbala is repeatedly told to inspire Muslims to prepare to die to defend Islam.
(Knight Ridder Deputy Foreign Editor Davis is the author of two books on Islam.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Iraq-map