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Thousands of Iraqi Shiite Muslims march to honor martyrs

NAJAF, Iraq—A chilly morning fog engulfed thousands of Iraqi Shiite Muslims who marched through the ancient streets of Najaf on Sunday as the holy city remembered its martyrs for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Men flogged their backs with chains and women beat their chest as drummers turned grief into rhythm. The march marked the anniversary of the slaying of a venerated Shiite cleric by Saddam Hussein's security forces in 1999.

Insurgents in Baghdad, meanwhile, killed a U.S. soldier and two Iraqi children with homemade explosives that detonated Sunday morning in a busy shopping district. The attack also wounded five American soldiers, their interpreter and eight members of the Iraqi civil defense corps.

Also on Sunday, another U.S. soldier was killed and three others were wounded when their convoy was hit with explosives near Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad where support for Saddam remains strong.

The parade in Najaf, 90 miles south of the capital, passed without any violence. Many residents had worried that the martyrs' day observance would make them a target.

Suicide bombers on Saturday killed 19 people and wounded more than 150 in the nearby Shiite holy city of Karbala.

Najaf residents, long oppressed by Saddam, wept as they recalled Mohammed Sadiq al Sadr as a revolutionary whose bloody end on these streets capped a life fighting for the religious and political rights of Iraq's Shiite majority. Shiites also revere other members of his family who were killed during Saddam's rule.

Many onlookers also said they hoped the strong turnout and fiery chants sent a message to Iraqi politicians who are competing to rule in post-war Iraq.

Last week, Sunni Muslims on Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council formed an alliance to counter their Shiite rivals' growing power. Days later, a delegation of Shiite council members paid a visit to the nation's predominant ayatollah, Ali Husseini al Sistani, to chat about election strategy.

"This day will be written in Iraqi history," said Maythim Sahib, 27, an Islamic militia member toting an AK-47 rifle as he patrolled the scene. "Sadr was a symbol of the true leadership potential of Iraqis. He was never afraid, not even of Saddam. This is the type of leader we need now."

Moqtada al Sadr, a young cleric closely watched by U.S. forces for his inciteful speeches against the U.S.-led coalition and its Iraqi collaborators, was conspicuously absent from the Najaf events honoring his father and other members of his family.

Organizers said Moqtada al Sadr delivered a speech the previous day, but was kept from Sunday's events for safety reasons. A pair of Humvees carrying U.S. troops raced past the procession in the early morning and did not return, leaving security in the hands of black-clad militia members and a few uniformed Iraqi policemen.

Nearly every home along the parade route held stories of family members killed or tortured for asserting themselves as Shiites under Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime. A staggering number of young men joined the march in wheelchairs or on crutches. One woman lifted the bottom of her black gown to show the scar of a bullet wound she received when running from Saddam's agents during a Shiite uprising in 1991.

Abdel-Ilah Hassan, a 64-year-old man with jagged scars on his arms from past torture, passed out dates rolled in coconut to celebrate the day many Iraqis hope will become a national holiday.

"Do you see how I'm crying?" Hassan said. "Thank God for this day, for this prize for Iraq."

However, the chants and drums of the procession sounded bittersweet to three generations of women who listened from inside their home. Lamya al Bakah, the family's 72-year-old matriarch, returned a month ago from exile in Iran, and still wears mourning clothes for the son who was executed under Saddam for participating in opposition activities in the early 1980s.

What should be a happy reunion with her daughter and granddaughter, she said, is marred by the grim task of combing through remains found in nearby mass graves for her son's bones.

"The Americans placed the whole world in my hands by allowing me to return to this new Iraq," Lamya al Bakah said, gazing at a portrait of her dead son in his Iraqi army uniform. "We were afraid to even whisper our prayers before, and now we can march through the streets. I would drink the dust of my country before I leave again."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq