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Shiite pilgrims defy bombings in Iraq to mark Arbaeen

Shiite pilgrims rely on the kindness of Shiites and even some Sunnis who set up hospitality tents along the road to the holy city of Karbala. Both pilgrims and volunteers say they won't be stopped by the risk of violence.

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“She was holding her abaya closed tight and she seemed to be keeping to herself, “ says Mr. Dhahr, wearing a black cap signifying that he is a descendant of the prophet Muhammad.

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When she approached the men’s area, he said he thought she had probably lost her way. “I said, 'Please pilgrim, there’s a tent for women,' so I led her to the women’s tent.” She took a sandwich and ate it and when he turned his head about 20 feet away, she detonated herself.

Dhahr’s two young sons, Ali and Hassan, were among more than 50 people killed in the bombing, many of them women and children. Dhahr says he considers them martyrs who are now in the company of Imam Hussein.

Just hours after the bombing, the neighborhood resumed feeding the pilgrims. Each year since, they say, donations from townspeople have increased. In the evening, they grill lamb kabobs for the travelers, the wood fires lighting the darkness of neighborhoods deprived of electricity for hours at a time.

Shiites denied pilgrimage under Saddam Hussein

With Shiites a small minority in the Muslim world but a majority long denied both freedom or religion and political power in Iraq, the Arbaeen commemorations are also seen an expression of Shiite power. Many of the faithful say they have become even more determined to carry out the pilgrimage in the face of attacks.

Many are making up for all the years they were banned from publicly commemorating the event under the mainly Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein.

Younnis Raheem Mohammad Zuhaira, a high school mathematics teacher from Diyala Province, says he and others tried to make the pilgrimage in secret before the war, walking through fields and date orchards to reach Karbala. If caught, they were stopped and sent back.

“All those times we were doing the pilgrimage it was with fear and suffering,” says Mr. Zuhaira. He says he once witnessed a group of young men beaten to death by Iraqi security forces near the tomb of Imam Hussein in Karbala for uttering pro-Shiite slogans.

“I saw it with my own eyes.… I wanted to leave but I was dragged by one of the security guards and pushed down and all the rifles were point[ed] at our heads. They kept us like that for an hour and then they let us go.”

Sectarian tensions on the rise

Sectarian tension in Iraq has grown with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government seeking the arrest of a Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, linking him to a suicide bomb that exploded in parliament in December. Mr. Hashemi, who has taken refuge in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, denies all charges.

Outside the Green Zone, where the Iraqi government is based, most Shiite Iraqis say they don’t fear a return to civil war as seen in 2006-07, when Shiite militias were fighting Sunni extremists.

“This is a political game,” says Huseein Ali al-Azzawi, a government employee on his way to Karbala. He says the bitter experience of Iraq’s sectarian fighting, when ordinary Iraqis turned to Shiite militias and Sunni extremists for protection, has taught people that they were being drawn into the conflict for political purposes.

“We are much more aware now,” he says. “The people – the tribes and the citizens – know this was politicized and they will not let it happen again."

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