updated 1/30/2007 5:44:40 PM ET 2007-01-30T22:44:40

Tens of thousands of Shiite Muslim men, some beating their chests and slashing their heads with blades, marched along city streets throughout the Middle East on Tuesday to mark Ashoura.

The marches in Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran took place in an atmosphere of tension between Shiites and Sunni Muslims that has risen during the past year as the power struggles in Beirut and Baghdad take on a sectarian cast.

In the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, thousands of Shiite men walked in circles in the town square, many slashing their heads with swords and then pounding the wound with the palm of their hand. They wore white sheets as symbolic shrouds, which also served to absorb the blood.

Men brought their young sons, parts of their heads shaven, to a hall in Nabatiyeh where a man cleansed a pocketknife with alcohol before striking each boy several times on the head. Some boys cried and resisted, but the cutting proceeded.

“We’re used to it,” said Mahmoud Jaber, 43, who brought his five boys to slash their heads. “We’ve been doing this since we were kids. I started when I was three. It doesn’t hurt because the cry of pain goes away with the faith.”

Another participant, Abbas Mahmoudi, an engineer, explained why he cut himself by saying: “If the intention is sincere, then I will be rewarded (by God).”

Shiites confident
Mahmoudi, 24, said he was not worried about the hostility between the leading Shiite and Sunni political parties in Lebanon. “Al Hamdulillah, (praise be to God), the Shiites are always victorious,” he said.

One of the holiest days of the Shiite year, Ashoura marks the killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, in a 680 A.D. battle at Karbala in Iraq. As the victors went on to become the Sunni branch of Islam, Hussein’s death is regarded as the start of the schism between Sunnis and Shiites.

The story of Hussein’s final hours was recounted in a huge hall in south Beirut by a cleric who broke down and wept. Several thousand men and women listened in segregated seating, many weeping or slapping their heads.

In eastern Saudi Arabia, men, children and then women marched through the town of Awwamiya, beating their chests. Many of the men’s faces were covered in blood from wounds inflicted on their heads with daggers. Over their black clothes, they wore white ponchos to better display the blood.

“The spilling of blood is a symbol of our intent to live by the values of Hussein,” said Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric.

In Sihat, elsewhere in eastern Saudi Arabia, hundreds of men stood in a farm shed beating their chests with their open palms and wailing “O, Hussein, God is great! God is Great!” In a large shed next door, women followed the demonstration on closed circuit TV, tapping their one hand with the other in time to the rhythm set by the men.

Sectarian strife prevails
Despite the certainty of sectarian violence in Iraq — at least 39 Shiite worshippers were killed in attacks — millions attended commemorations. Under Saddam Hussein, Shiites were restricted from performing the Ashoura rituals.

Rahim Hussein, a 34-year-old laborer who traveled to Karbala from Baghdad and was dressed entirely in black, said “I came to die in this holy day. We are not afraid from the terrorists wherever they are. Let them come. I came to win martyrdom.”

In Pakistan, an explosion next to a pre-dawn Ashoura procession provoked an outburst of shooting that left two Sunni Muslims dead in the western town of Hangu, police said. Nine police officers and four civilians were wounded in the attack.

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