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Shiite pilgrims to US: 'Thanks. Please go now.'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2003


The chanting never stops. Nor does the flailing with chains. And the emotional intensity just keeps rising for Iraqi Shiite Muslims on their first free pilgrimage in a generation. They pound their chests so hard in unison that the ground the seems to shake beneath them.

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Columns of humanity - hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, on foot and some limping after days on sticky hot roads - are pouring into Iraq's holy city of Karbala, to mark one of the most sacred events in the Shiite calendar - and the end of Saddam Hussein's ruthlessly secular regime.

But just as Iraq's long-repressed Shiite majority enjoy a religious reawakening, the scale of the event is a show of strength for Shiite clergy who are moving quickly to fill the vacuum left by Mr. Hussein before American forces do.

"These public demonstrations are ... to express Shiite power to the Americans," says Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, the top Shiite cleric in Karbala.

"If America really likes Iraq, it should leave Iraqis to our fate," he says. "If it is a real liberator, it shouldn't force a government on us."

As up to a million pilgrims converge on Karbala this week, passing through the gilt-domed shrines of Abbas and Hussein, the topic of conversation is when American troops will leave Iraq - and what kind of government they will leave behind.

Politics and religion never mixed in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where clerics kept a low profile, rarely wearing their robes in public, and the faithful were regularly accused of dissent and tortured by security services.

While gratitude toward America runs deep for toppling Hussein, Iraqi Shiites say they expect the US to honor promises of democracy, and to go home soon.

American forces are camped on the outskirts of Karbala, and the conventional wisdom Tuesday was that they would not risk a provocation on crowded streets by entering the city.

But midmorning, even as pockets in the crowd chanted anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, two US Humvees drove through the masses to the edge of the Abbas Mosque, with soldiers in sunglasses waving self-consciously like beauty queens on parade.

"We don't want the Americans driving here - we want them to go," says Haidar Ghazi, a religious student with a close-cropped beard. "It does not feel like democracy. When I see those two vehicles, I think it is the same as Saddam Hussein."

One Muslim said the US soldiers had been "stupid" to conduct such a brazen act as driving through the crowd, but he then pointed to surging crowds on their way to the sacred sites, to explain a broader issue. "Look at this," the man said. "Do you really want democracy here?"

That is what Iraqis say they want, adding almost uniformly that they want it with little American influence. While Shiite clerics in poor neighborhoods of Baghdad have been talking tough about creating an Islamic state - one in which women would be forced to cover their hair, and games and dancing would be outlawed - those from southern Iraq sounded a more pluralistic note Tuesday.