Image: Iraqi Shi Ite Pilgrims Beat Their Chests In Kerbala
Iraqi Shiite men beat their chests inside the Mosque of Imam Ali in Karbala on Tuesday.

As hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims headed toward this holy city in a pilgrimage Tuesday, TV cameras focused on shocking images — emotional groups of men with blood covering their faces, some of them shouting anti-American slogans. But viewed firsthand, this immense gathering was also an orderly demonstration of the emerging power of Iraq’s Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population.

The tradition behind the blood goes back 1,400 years, to a battle for the leadership of the then-young Islamic religion following the death of Ali, the revered son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

Normally Ali’s son, Hussein, would have inherited the leadership. But as Hussein approached Karbala, instead of greeting followers, he found supporters of a rival, who murdered him and cut off his head.

Forty days after his death, his family members — who had been held captive by his killers — were freed, and they reunited his head and body in his tomb here, now the site of an elaborate mosque.

Now each year Shiite pilgrims come here on the 40th day after the date of his beheading, often cutting themselves with swords or flogging themselves with chains until they draw blood. It’s a ritual that is very similar to what happens in parts of Italy around Easter, when pilgrims press crowns of thorns into their foreheads until blood streams down their faces, to commemorate the last hours of Jesus before he was crucified.

In this celebration, Shiite Muslims share the suffering of Hussein as he was beheaded and mourn the end of the Shiite line as the mainstream of Islam.


There must have been 1 1/2 million people here, filling all of the streets and streaming out into the countryside. Many carried flags of green, pink and black and white. There were groups of men slapping their chests and chanting in Arabic: “Yes, yes, yes, Hussein,” and “No, no, no, America.”

It was the largest such demonstration in Karbala in years. Shiites were not allowed to do this under Saddam Hussein.

The size of the crowds showed the Shiites’ power. And while we did come across a few pockets of armed individuals, it was by and large a peaceful celebration. Along the side of the streets there were ice cream shops and people selling flowers, clothing and religious goods.

Indeed, it was a well-organized festival: On the way into town, there were water, podiatry and first-aid stations, and no U.S. troops were visible.


But that does not mean the Shiites will not be a problem as the United States tries to build a unified Iraq. When U.S. troops came through here recently, Shiite religious leaders allowed the U.S. forces to pass through unhindered on their way to Baghdad because they were getting rid of the Baathists and Republican Guard.

Now, many of the religious leaders are sending pilgrims back to Baghdad with a message: “Take the power,” they are being told. “The power is yours.”NBC News correspondent Bob Arnot is on assignment in Iraq.

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