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For fist time in 6 years, Shiites make religious pilgrimage that Saddam had banned

KARBALA, Iraq—For miles they walked in the choking dust kicked up by tanks and armored vehicles thundering down the highway. Many walked without shoes. Some limped on crutches.

It's called 10th Muharram, an annual religious pilgrimage Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq made to Karbala for hundreds of years until Saddam Hussein banned the practice in 1997.

"Saddam was against everything," said Jamal Khalil, 52, who recently returned to Iraq from Germany. Khalil said Saddam was afraid that the practice would undermine his power.

But for the first time in six years, Shiites are able to publicly mark the 10 days of mourning that commemorate the martyrdom of their prophet, Hussein, son of Ali and grandson of Muhammad.

Muharram, the first month of the Islam calendar, coincides with the time when Hussein and his family were surrounded by Yazid, the Muslim ruler at the time, and put to death.

Along the road Monday, many Shiites carried green flags, the color Hussein wore on his forehead. The women wore black to show they were in mourning, and some followers hit themselves with chains along the trek from their homes to the spot where their prophet was killed in Karbala.

"The people were very happy," said Ala Oraha, 39, who was born in Iraq and lives in Detroit. He is working as a translator for the Army.

"You could see they were carrying their flags, and many had written beautiful things on them," he said.

A few soldiers in the convoy from the 4th Infantry Division understood the significance of the march.

"Regardless of whether they are Muslims or Christians, it makes me feel good they can practice it openly," said Capt. Said Maqsodi, who is originally from Afghanistan.

A unit of soldiers from the Army's Civil Affairs units riding with the 4th Infantry Division said the celebration is a sign that the people feel free.

"This is a journey they've been waiting to take for a long time," said Maj. Dean Fraioli, 35, of Boston. His unit is responsible for helping restore civil order in Iraq. "It shows us things have changed."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.