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What Arbain in Iraq is like

A story on the 'Iraqi block party on steroids' from our archives.

By Staff writer / January 24, 2011



Today is the culmination of the Shiite holiday of Arbain and, depressingly, it has once more been disrupted by terrorist attacks on pilgrims. The AP is reporting at least 18 killed in two car bomb attacks as hundreds of thousands gathered around Karbala, home of the shrine to Imam Hussein.

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I'm going to do a short post on the attacks in Iraq in a bit. But while doing some research found that a piece of mine on joining the pilgrimage in 2004 had vanished from our archives (which happens occasionally). I covered the Iraq war for five years, and the below piece from April 2004 recounts my favorite day in the country.

My pilgrimage (from April 2004)

My last trip to the holy city of Karbala was nearly two weeks ago to take a look at the Shiite holiday of Arbain.

The name simply means “40” in Arabic, and celebrates the 40th and last day of the mourning period for Imam Hussein, killed on the flat plain outside Karbala in 680 AD.

His death cemented the schism between Shiite and Sunni Islam and engendered a deep concern with martyrdom and hopeless causes for many of the world’s Shiites.

In a struggle for the leadership of Islam, Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, led 72 followers into battle against 4,000 well-trained troops loyal to the Ummayid Caliphate, which had come out on top in the struggle to control Islam after Mohammed’s death.

The results were predictable.

Hussein and most of his followers slaughtered, the surviving women in the family led into slavery in Damascus. Shiites call the flat, salt area outside the city the plain of sorrow and misfortune.

This year, there were concerns the holiday, marked by tens of thousands of pilgrims who make their way on foot to Karbala from as far away as Iran, would be hit by a suicide attack similar to the one that killed hundreds on Ashura, the anniversary of Hussein’s death.

I was more interested in learning about tensions inside the city, which were reported by The Associated Press and others to be under the control of the Mahdi Army, the militia of the young cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr.

The Mahdi Army led brief uprisings against the occupation in a number of southern cities in early April and is still in a tense stand-off with US forces in the city of Najaf, where Hussein’s father, Ali, is buried.

I went with another Baghdad-based reporter, an American who, like me, at least has dark hair.

She wore a full black abaya and the plan was to present ourselves as husband and wife if we ran into any trouble – the respect a covered woman’s presence would command would hopefully cool tempers before they got out of hand.

I’ve also grown a beard.

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