The new Iraqi government passed a major security test Tuesday as millions of Shiite Muslims prayed and marched in huge processions on one of their sect’s holiest days, unbloodied by the Sunni Muslim extremist attacks that have marred the commemorations in years past.
The gatherings mourn the death of Hussein Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in a battle more than 13 centuries ago at Karbala, south of Baghdad, that cemented the schism between Shiites and Sunnis and fuels much of the violence now convulsing Iraq, Syria, other parts of the Middle East and Pakistan.
Known as Ashura, the day has seen considerable bloodshed in Iraq in recent years, as the Islamic State and its forerunner, al Qaida in Iraq – which disparage Shiites as apostates – unleashed suicide and car bomb attacks against pilgrims making their way to the shrines of Hussein and his brother, Imam Abbas, in Karbala. More than 40 people died on Ashura last year.
But Ashura passed Tuesday without any violence targeting the religious commemorations, although fighting persisted elsewhere between the Sunni extremists and Iraqi security forces, pro-government tribesmen and Shiite militias. At least 56 people died in five Islamic State bombings aimed at pilgrims and security forces in Baghdad over the weekend.
The absence of bloodshed on Ashura itself represented a significant boost for Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, the politician who was named to the post in August after Nouri al Maliki resigned under considerable U.S. pressure.
One apparent reason for the absence of attacks Tuesday was an operation by some 10,000 Shiite militiamen, backed by troops and police, who drove the Islamic State last month out of an area south of Baghdad that controls a network of roads used by pilgrims bound for Hussein’s shrine.
But it wasn’t clear why the Islamic State didn’t attack Ashura celebrants elsewhere.
Security was intense throughout Baghdad. Police, troops and Shiite militiamen barred traffic in many areas as men and boys – waving flags, bashing drums and beating their backs with chains – marched in mourning processions for Hussein, whom Shiites revere as a symbol of ultimate sacrifice.
“The sympathizers and the sleeper cells of Daash have infiltrated Baghdad. We’ve deployed members everywhere,” said Hadar Ali, 32, a member of an Iran-backed Shiite militia called Khatib Hezbollah. “Daash” is a pejorative Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
In Baghdad’s downtown Karada district, dozens of Shiite militiamen and police kept watch as several hundred men marched to a dusty soccer field on the bank of the Tigris River, where the fortress-like U.S. Embassy, the world’s largest, sits on the opposite side in the high-security Green Zone.
Two men performed a rite known as “tatbeer,” cutting their heads open with swords, their blood trailing down their faces and clothing as they marched. At the soccer field, a crowd of several thousand looked on as hundreds of costumed men and boys re-enacted the Battle of Karbala, the fight in A.D. 680 in which Hussein was slain by the army of Caliph Yazid, regarded by Sunnis as the head of the faith.
In Karbala, 90 miles south of Baghdad, millions of pilgrims waited for hours to make their way between the two shrines, and security was tight. Buses and cars drove up and down the highway through multiple checkpoints manned by troops and police. Passengers had to disembark about 15 miles short of the city, pass through body checks and then board buses provided by the shrines, a precaution aimed at keeping car bombs out of the city.
Shiites, whose name derives from an Arabic phrase meaning “followers,” make up a majority of Iraq’s estimated population of 33.4 million, but they constitute only about 20 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, while Sunnis compose most of the rest.