KARBALA, Iraq — Tens of thousands of Iraqis marched and beat themselves Thursday in blood-soaked processions through this holy city and other Shiite centers across the country to mourn the 7th century death of their revered martyr, Imam Hussein.
Amid tight security and as a fierce sand storm swept the country, hundreds of thousands of people descended on Karbala where Hussein is believed buried to take part in ceremonies marking Ashoura, the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic lunar calendar.
Authorities hoped to prevent Sunni Arab suicide bombers from targeting the event as they have done in Iraq during the previous two years, killing more than 230 people.
In Pakistan on Thursday, an apparent suicide bombing ripped through a Shiite procession outside a mosque in a northwestern town, killing eight and wounding 40. The attack prompted a riot among the Shiites, who were observing the Ashoura holiday.
About 20,000 men wearing white shrouds and waving swords above their heads began marching early Thursday between the gold-domed Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala and another dedicated to his brother, Abbas, less than a mile away. Thousands of onlookers lined the road as they marched through the city, 50 miles south of Baghdad.
Following dawn mosque prayers, about 8,000 people, including young children, dressed in black as a sign of mourning and marched between the two shrines to the beat of deep bass drums. Some slapped chains across their backs until their clothes were soaked with blood, while others beat their heads with the flat side of swords and knives until blood ran freely.
“Although it is a sad day, I am very happy because I took part in these head-beating processions,” said 10-year-old school boy Haider Abbas Salim, whose face was covered in blood. “Imam Hussein’s martyrdom teaches us manhood and that we shouldn’t fear anything.”
Imam Hussein was the grandson of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and was massacred along with about 70 followers by an army of Umayyads, their rivals for leadership of the Muslim community, during a 680 A.D. battle in Karbala. Hussein’s death cemented the split in Islam between Shiites and Sunni Muslims.
Heavy security presence
More than 8,000 security forces and extra Shiite militiamen had deployed in Karbala before the holiday, frisking pilgrims and preventing vehicles from entering the city. The United States has been using unmanned and unarmed drones to provide an aerial view of processions. One crashed Tuesday in Baghdad and was returned by local leaders.
Suicide bombers have targeted the past two Ashoura commemorations. Last year, eight suicide bombers killed 55 Shiites, while in 2004, at least 181 people were killed by twin blasts at Shiite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and Karbala.
The al-Qaida in Iraq group headed by Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Heightened security tensions
This year’s ceremonies come amid heightened sectarian tensions in Iraq between Shiites and Sunni Arabs and a campaign of kidnappings and killings against respective members of each community. The United States is backing efforts to form a new unity government comprising Iraq’s Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds to stop the violence.
Pools of fresh blood covered the road through Karbala on which the mourners flagellated themselves. The scene was repeated in other locations across the country, including Baghdad’s northern Kazimiyah suburb, a Shiite stronghold. Shiite pilgrims from other countries, including India, traveled to Karbala to attend the ceremony.
Many Iraqis cooked throughout the night and pilgrims attending the ceremonies were given meals of rice and thick soup made of meat and chick peas.
Shiites are the majority in Iraq, comprising about 60 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people. But only 15 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are Shiites, with the majority being Sunni.
Under Saddam Hussein, Shiites were restricted from performing Ashoura-related rituals. But they resumed the practice of the rites after Saddam’s ouster.
“This is very old tradition which the cursed Saddam denied us for more than 20 years,” said Mohammed Karim Hassan, 62, who had streaks of blood across his face after beating the top of his head with a sword near the Imam Hussein shrine. “It is something very small to hit my head and draw blood in grief for Imam Hussein.”
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