BAGHDAD — Haider al Hussein, a merchant in Baghdad's popular Shorja market, wrapped his head in a black turban, donned a green uniform and, sword in scabbard, began the fight between good and evil before an audience of Shiite Muslims.
During the week he works in a market that's been the target of car bombs. But today he's playing the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who also was named Hussein.
"Imam Hussein was not only for Muslims, he came for all of humanity," Hussein said. "He wanted to end injustice."
Every year Shiites commemorate the death of Imam Hussein in A.D. 680 on the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram during a festival known as Ashura. They don black and listen to sermons recounting the slaying of Hussein, his family and his followers at the hands of the army of the Ummayad Caliph, Yazid. The height of the ceremony lands on Saturday this year, the anniversary of Hussein's death.
Hundreds of thousands of people typically converge on Karbala, the city where the battle was fought, Hussein is believed to be buried and one of Shiite Islam's holiest places. But this year, with strict security measures in place, Iraqi air force helicopters buzzing in the sky, a 30,000-strong Iraqi security force in the city and a ban on vehicles from Baghdad to Karbala, only 3,400 people have made it to the holy city, Gov. Aqeel al Khazaali said.
In Baghdad, pilgrims typically fill the streets as they walk to Karbala. Most usually arrive on the second day of the 10-day commemoration, when Hussein, his family and his small army of followers reached the city. But few pilgrims are seen parading through the streets this year to walk to the holy city.
The march has been marred by sniper fire, roadside bombs and suicide attacks on pilgrims in recent years. One woman said her walk last year was under a "rain of bullets." On Thursday a suicide bomber in the violent province of Diyala targeted a procession outside a Shiite mosque, killing 12 and injuring 16. This followed a similar attack Wednesday that killed eight and injured seven when a suicide bomber detonated in a busy marketplace.
In August, at least 52 people were killed during a religious celebration when a clash broke out that many blamed on the militia that's loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
In central Baghdad, Haider al Hussein and many other residents are staying in the Karrada district to mark the occasion. Under Saddam Hussein, Shiites staged the commemorations in secret, in the basements of homes. Now re-enactments such as the one in Karrada are performed throughout Iraq's Shiite areas.
With violence reduced from years past, Shiites are more willing to take to the streets. The past few weeks have seen an increase in bombings, however, mostly targeting Sunni Muslims who've turned on al Qaida in Iraq, the extremist Sunni group, undermining some of the recent gains in security.
"In the past we didn't know our enemy," Hussein said. "It may be the police or the government, but now we know it is the terrorists."
Many Sunnis don't share that sentiment, fearing what they see as a sectarian Iraqi security force.
As Hussein took to the center of a soccer field to play his part, a woman named Um Ali sat on a bench watching.
"We suffer from the bad people on this pure land," she said. "There is no gas, no water. We cannot make bread because there is no propane for the stove."
She looked at the actors who were staging the suffering that Hussein and his followers befell, a symbol of oppression and tyranny that Shiites remember through this annual ceremony.
"We are waiting for relief from God, Ahl al Bayt (the family of the house of Muhammad) and Hussein," she said. "Relief from this suffering."
(McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa in Baghdad and Yassar Ghani in Karbala contributed to this article.)