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Iraq holy festival winds down

Tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims headed home on Sunday after a subdued religious festival overshadowed by a rally in support of a radical Shiite cleric and fears of Sunni militant attacks.
/ Source: Reuters

Tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims headed home on Sunday after a subdued religious festival overshadowed by a rally in support of a radical Shiite cleric and fears of Sunni militant attacks.

Several hundred thousand pilgrims from Iraq and Iran had thronged the street of Karbala for al-Arbaeen, a ceremony that falls 40 days after the Shiite holy day of Ashura -- when suicide bomb attacks on Shiites in Baghdad and Karbala killed 171.

Amid fears of repeated bloodshed, the atmosphere in Karbala was tense, more so after a week of fierce clashes around the city between U.S.-led forces and fighters loyal to a virulently anti-American Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

In the event, the peak of the al-Arbaeen pilgrimage -- the saying of prayers before dawn -- passed peacefully. Amid the security concerns, attendance at the festival was sharply down on estimates that up to four million people would gather.

By afternoon, the narrow streets of Karbala were emptying, with pilgrims -- some of whom slept in the open for several nights -- packing up their belongings and saying final prayers in the two mosques that form the centerpiece of the holy city.

Huge traffic jams blocked the roads out of Karbala, 65 miles southwest of Baghdad, as a sea of cars and buses filled with passengers headed off to the north and south of Iraq and towards the border with Iran.

The ceremonies commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, nearly 14 centuries ago. The fall of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated regime ended decades of oppression of Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority and left them free to observe Ashura and al-Arbaeen.

Sadr's militiamen have battled Polish and Bulgarian troops around Karbala in several skirmishes over the past week. The clashes have killed 69 people and wounded more than 100, Mahdi Masnawi, Karbala director-general of health, told Reuters.

But on the eve of al-Arbaeen, officials from other Shiite groups said they had reached agreement with al-Sadr to halt all fighting during the ceremonies.

Inside the city, there were processions to the shrine of Imam Hussein, with men carrying mock tents and leading women in chains to reenact the Shiite tragedy of the death of Hussein. Men and women wept and flagellated themselves.

Scant support for al-Sadr
Few pilgrims voiced support for Sadr and his uprising -- the young cleric draws more support from poor, angry youths in the Baghdad slums than among the traditionalists in Karbala.

Around midday on Sunday, as many pilgrims were leaving, about 150 people rallied in support of al-Sadr.

"We are supporting Muqtada because he challenged the Americans, the Zionists, and exposed the hypocrite Ayatollahs," said one, Morad al-Mohammadi from Baghdad's Sadr City slum.

In one street, where most windows were shattered and walls were pockmarked with bullet holes after fighting with Polish troops, locals shoved away a man chanting his support for al-Sadr.

"Go away from here, we have women and children," said one of the locals. "If you want to fight them, go fight them in your neighborhood, don't fight in our city."

Iraqi police, whom U.S.-led forces had previously entrusted with keeping order during al-Arbaeen, were not seen in Karbala after this week's clashes. Shiite militias and local guards, some employed by the clerical authorities, were patrolling streets.

Some clerical authorities expressed concern at the extra security risk created by the police abandoning their positions, but said pilgrims would continue to come to Karbala to celebrate al-Arbaeen anyway.

"Thanks be to God that nothing has happened until now, but even if there were attacks people would come," said Afdhal al-Shami, head of security for Karbala's Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines. "During Saddam's time people were tortured and killed to try to make them stop coming, but they still came."