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A peace sign: Iraq's Sunnis joining Shiite pilgrims

After three years of violence, pilgrims return to Karbala's shrine.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 2009

Residents offered tea on the road for Shiite pilgrims visiting the holy city of Karbala to mark Arbain on Sunday. The holiday falls 40 days after the Shiite holiday of Ashura.

Atef Hassan/Reuters

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Sheikh Mohammad al-Ethawi, resplendent in his gold-trimmed robe and white headdress, hands out oranges to Shiite pilgrims walking by a striped tent on the main route to the holy city of Karbala.

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Sheikh Ethawi is Sunni. The Doura highway, where more than a million pilgrims – largely Shiite – are walking for the first time in three years, passes through what had been one of Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods. Their numbers and Ethawi's presence are a sign of the easing of sectarian tensions that almost ripped this country apart.

"A lot of people were afraid last year," says Ethawi, the head of the Hathar tribal council in southern Baghdad. The council, a mix of Sunni and Shiite leaders, is hosting a rest stops that offers food, drinks, and shelter along the roads choked with pilgrims, who walk for days to reach the holy city. The pilgrimage commemorates Arbaeen, the end of 40 days of mourning for the death of the prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein in battle 13 centuries ago.

The Iraqi government launched a massive security effort for this year's pilgrimage that culminated Monday with an estimated 6 million people gathering in Karbala. Most seemed undeterred by scattered attacks along the route, including a female suicide bomber who killed at least 40 people when she blew herself up at a rest stop south of Baghdad and another bomb in Karbala that killed eight.

"It was a small explosion," says Jamil Dawoud, driving through Radwaniyah, 10 miles south of the capital, on his way back from the holy city.

Mr. Dawoud, a stonemason, had stopped at a table where both Shiite and Sunni security volunteers, known as the Sons of Iraq, had lowered their rifles to flag down passing cars, ladling orange drinks out of a big plastic tub and passing around trays of sesame cookies.

The rural area where one of Saddam Hussein's larger palaces rises just beyond the hayfields and date palms had been too dangerous to drive through until recently.

"Last year, if you stopped here they would have killed you," says Dawoud.

Sunnis now help

In Baghdad, the improved security has led some Sunnis to once again openly participate in the mostly Shiite commemoration. Hanan Faleh Abdul Qadir, a retired accountant, this year is again openly cooking for her neighbors in Al-Adel.

"For the past two years I cooked clandestinely and carried the dishes under my abaya to distribute to neighbors I trusted," says Ms. Abdul Qadir. She says her son was kidnapped and tortured in 2006 after he defended Shiite neighbors who had been ordered to leave their homes.

"This year I cooked a lot of food in my garage and distributed it to all the neighbors," she says. Apart from being neighborly, Abdul Qadir notes that her actions also reflect a Sunni reverence for the prophet's grandson.

South of Baghdad, at the highway interchange near Mahmudiyah, Army officer Ali Qassim Abbas stands watch as thousands of pilgrims stream past barbed-wire barricades, some being pushed in wheelchairs or carrying babies in their arms.

"If we decided to separate the Sunni from Shiite we would have to divide the bedrooms," says Abbas, referring to the countless intermarriages.