Shiite Muslims celebrate long-repressed commemoration

KARBALA, Iraq—Jawad Aziz didn't beat his chest or slap his forehead with chains until it bled, like others he saw march down this holy city's streets Tuesday.

Instead, he came to the Shiite Muslim pilgrimage here with the scars of torture he got from Saddam Hussein's regime for his Shiite beliefs: purplish streaks on his chest from electric shocks and brown circles on his arms from cigarette burns.

"I have had paid the price," he said. "I do not have to hurt myself here."

While Aziz came to celebrate the faith that cost him so much pain, others reveled in the demise of a dictator who repressed religious freedom for 35 years.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiites from across Iraq streamed to the gold-domed Imam al Hussein mosque Tuesday, shouting rhythmic tributes and waving green, red and gold flags to honor one of their most revered saints, Imam Hussein.

The festive mood was at odds with the reason for their gathering: the annual mourning for Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who was beheaded there more than 1,300 years earlier in a battle for control over Islam.

The commemoration of the bloody attack on Hussein also quieted, temporarily, the latest struggle for control of Iraq's Shiite majority, which recently claimed the life of one prominent cleric and laid siege to another.

"This event has melted away all the difference of opinion," said Imam Afwan Nazar al Karbalae, the Friday prayer leader in Karbala. "Unfortunately, the differences will probably rise again, even though we don't want them to."

Oppressed under Saddam, Iraq's Shiite majority now has the size, strength and opportunity to play the dominant role in forming a new Iraqi government. Rivalries among different clerics' followers and factions have emerged, with disagreements on whether the new government should be an Islamic theocracy or a democracy. And American officials are concerned that a Shiite-run government could be hostile to U.S. interests.

But none of that was evident Tuesday. The day was a combination pep rally for religious freedom and an opportunity for young Shiites to show they had learned the teachings of their parents and clerics, even under a repressive government. Followers of rival Shiite leaders launched into good-natured chanting contests to see who could outdo the other.

Hitting their chests with a thunderous hollow clap every fourth beat, they charged toward the shrines of Hussein and his half-brother Abbas in the 95-degree heat.

Inside the holy shrines, expressions of grief were more frenzied. Men and boys crawled across the stone courtyard on hands and knees. Earlier, young men with bleeding foreheads from self-inflicted sword wounds surged into Hussein's shrine, mimicking the ambush that killed him.

Karim Abdel Amir, keeper of the Abbas shrine, said jubilation was to be expected given the constraints that had been placed on Shiites under Saddam. "Saying `Ya Hussein' (up with Hussein) would get you six months" in jail, he said. "The shrines were filled with Iraqi intelligence agents who made sure you said your prayers and then left."

During the last week, the shrines have been open 24 hours a day without restrictions, Amir said. Hundreds of pilgrims have chosen to camp inside.

Fareed Aji and his wife spent six nights in one of the shrine's alcoves, alternating between prayer and quiet reflection, the Basra resident said. "Before, they wouldn't even let you sit here."

A U.S. military spokesman estimated the crowd in Karbala at about 1 million Tuesday. There were far more women than in past years, although their chants and slaps were quieter, in keeping with Islamic law about female modesty. Women could be seen praying in the hallway outside tombs encased in gold latticework, or mouthing the chants of the men.

The women were clad in black chadors, the men in anything from traditional white robes to golf shirts and chinos. People passed out free water, tea and lamb stew.

Despite the electricity in the air, the participants were polite and helpful to one another. People sprayed cool rose-scented water in the air from tanks on their backs, passed out shaved ice, directed traffic and helped anyone who stumbled.

American troops kept their distance, possibly to avoid any conflict. A half-hour's drive from the city, Army helicopters hung in the air monitoring the crowd with long-range cameras. Six people were reported arrested, accused of plotting to attack two mosques, according to the 82nd Airborne Division, which took custody of them.

Some of the pilgrims didn't miss their chance to protest the American presence, carrying placards that read: "Saddam went away. Now America you do the same." And: "Yes, yes, yes to a free Islam."

Others shouted at an American reporter: "Where is the electricity?" and "Where are our prisoners of war?"

Shiite scholar Khalid Nas Allah, 38, who had walked with a group of about 50 of his students from the famous Shiite seminary in Najaf, said those sentiments were nothing for America to be concerned about.

"We are saying what bothers us because there is hope things will improve," he said. "When we are quiet, then you need to worry."


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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030411 USIRAQ SHIITES