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Shiites travel to Karbala in show of new freedom, political strength

NAJAF, Iraq—Chanting and singing, hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims from across Iraq walked toward the holy city of Karbala on Monday, freely making a pilgrimage that had been banned by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

They carried pictures of favorite clerics and flags honoring the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, Hussein, whose murder about 680 A.D. in Karbala is being marked by this 40-day period of mourning—this year, for him and all dead Iraqis.

The pilgrimage is a demonstration of Shiite political strength at a time when some Shiite leaders are demanding that Iraq's new government be formed as an Islamic republic under Sharia, Islamic law. Others favor an Islamic democracy. But all agree that Iraqis should be free to determine their government without U.S. interference. U.S. officials worry that a Shiite-dominated government could be hostile toward U.S. interests and possibly ally with Iran's Islamic regime.

Shiite Muslims constitute about 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people but have been oppressed by Saddam's Sunni Muslim government. One senior Ayatollah in Qom, a holy city in Iran, has called for an immediate census to show that the proportion of Shiites in Iraq is even higher: 70 percent or more.

Despite the somber reasons for the journey, walkers bounced along exuberantly, heads held high, to mark their first open pilgrimage in decades. Saddam's government prohibited this procession from Najaf to Karbala, often brutally enforcing the ban with soldiers and tanks. To nearly all of the Shiites, the walk signaled a new day of religious freedom and joy, even though it is a period of grieving for the dead.

"We are happy because we can follow our religion and Saddam Hussein is gone," farmer Ziat Haddi said. "But we are sad because we grieve for Imam Hussein."

A spirit of kindness and generosity abounded among the walkers—feelings not in evidence 10 days ago, when an angry mob in Najaf murdered the pro-Western Shiite cleric Majid al Khoei and at least three others in what was seen as a bid to control the holiest Shiite shrine.

But during the pilgrimage, everyone helped everyone: Business people sponsored free food and water stations along the four-lane highway that runs for 50 miles from Najaf to Karbala. Weary walkers who used the northbound lanes where cars and trucks were forbidden, rested on rugs, quilts and mats set out by farmers. Farmers also served free water, tea and a lamb stew made with beans, curry, onion, garlic and tomato.

A few prosperous travelers wore tennis shoes and walked a few miles a day. Followed by hired trucks that carried food and water, those travelers marked where they stopped each day and drove home to sleep.

Most people walked the distance in two days, others took a week. But everyone planned to be in Karbala by Wednesday morning for the end of the pilgrimage.

Religious scholar Khalid Nas Allah, 38, led a group of about 50 students from Hawza University, a famous 1,300-year-old conservative Shiite seminary in Najaf, where Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini studied. Khalid studies and teaches under the direction of the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Sistani, 73, is under self-imposed house arrest in Najaf for protection, out of fears that he could be murdered like his ally, al Khoei. Khalid said Sistani told him: "All Iraqis must be quiet and helpful and work together—for now."

"And we are doing just that on our pilgrimage," Khalid said. But he warned: "This will continue only if our new government is an Iraqi democracy—not something the Americans choose."

Marchers gave the U.S. invasion of Iraq mixed reviews: "Americans have given us new life," an elderly woman yelled.

"Where is our electricity and water that the Americans destroyed?" yelled a man wearing a green cloth belt, which meant he was a descendant of Muhammad.

"We want just Islamic law," chanted a group of about 30 students, who raised their right hands and hit their chests after each declaration.

Back in quiet, empty Najaf, where the pilgrimage began, hundreds of government volunteers stuffed thousands of photocopied fliers under shop doors and businesses, where they'll be found when their owners and employees return from the pilgrimage.

All were signed by longtime Najaf mayor Abdul Munim.

One flier said the city will soon be safe and clean with electricity and water but asked for patience for a week more. Another asked residents to return the "computers, phones and furniture" they stole from bombed government offices so "Najaf can recover more quickly." Yet another flier announced that from April 21 through May 21, people in Najaf could get six months' of rations: flour, rice, sugar, tea and powdered milk.

And the fourth flier listed 16 men believed to have stabbed and beaten cleric al Khoei to death at the Imam Ali Mosque, where the march started last week.

"If you know where these people are, please turn them in so we can have justice," the mayor wrote. He concluded: "We want hope in an Najaf."


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