Shiite Iraqis began arriving here this week for a mass pilgrimage Thursday to a revered imam's shrine. Much of the city is now locked down, closed off to protect the nearly 1 million faithful expected to pay tribute in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiya.
But not only is this march to honor Imam Musa al-Kadhim in a Shiite Muslim rite, it has become a show of newfound power and defiance in the face of hard-line Sunni suicide bombers who continue to wreak havoc in their communities.
This year's pilgrimage also comes amid an unprecedented wave of anger toward Saudi Arabia. Government and religious leaders here charge that the neighboring kingdom is doing little to stem the flow of its nationals to Iraq to wage "holy war" on Shiites.
The Saudi backlash is being fueled by Iraqi media reports and Shiite leaders' condemnations of apparent fatwas, religious rulings by Saudi muftis calling for the destruction of Shiite shrines in Iraq.
But some Saudi Arabian analysts say this is a way for Baghdad's pro-Iranian leaders to steer attention away from Tehran's involvement in Iraq and toward its Sunni neighbors. In spite of questions about their authenticity, the fatwas are stirring up much of the Shiite community and is indeed coloring this year's pilgrimage.
"It is going to be the pilgrimage of defiance in the face of these fatwas that desecrate the imams and call for the destruction of their shrines," says Hazem al-Araji, a leader in the movement of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"Every Shiite that venerates the imams must say to the mufti [Sunni cleric] that we will defend the imams with our blood," he says.
As pilgrims began arriving Tuesday, the image of seventh Shiite Imam Musa al-Kadhim in shackles hung on banners over the neighborhood of Kadhimiya. The imam was poisoned about 1,200 years ago.
His persecution resonates deeply in Iraq today as Shiites try to hold onto unprecedented political gains while being viewed with suspicion in the Sunni Muslim world, especially in Sunni-led Saudi Arabia where Shiites are seldom allowed to openly practice their religion.
"So far, the Saudi attitude in particular, and the Arab one in general, has been negative toward the political process in Iraq," says Ridha Jawad Taqi, an Iraqi Shiite parliamentarian. "If they want nothing to do with us then we will just look for friends elsewhere."
Further fanning the flames of anti-Saudi public sentiment is the outrage expressed over an incident that Mr. Taqi says took place Sunday in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, when a group of Iraqi Shiites, including his son, were roughed up by Saudi security forces.
"They noticed they were Shiites because one of them was wearing a black turban so they rounded 12 of them up and beat them up with batons including my son Amir," he says, adding that his son plans to sue Saudi authorities, who have not publicly commented on the incident.
Iraqi Shiite exaggeration?
Several Saudi experts who track fatwas online denied the claims of the most recent one regarding Shiite holy sites. Ayed al-Dosari, a contributor to the United Arab Emirates-based Saha bulletin board, known for its extremist Sunni views, posted an article Wednesday calling the Iraqi claims "a lie" to "stoke the flames of discord."
Some analysts charged Iraq's Shiite politicians with trying to deflect from intense US pressure on Iran regarding its alleged support of extremist militias in Iraq responsible for the death of US troops.
Nibras al-Kazimi, an analyst reached in Istanbul,Turkey, says that the stepped-up anti-Saudi stance reflects frustration with what some see as Saudi Arabia's standoffish attitude toward the influx of its citizens to fight in Iraq.
"It's partly overreacting, and Saudi bashing will build political capital for some," says Mr. Kazimi, who is a visiting scholar with the Washington-based Hudson Institute. "But there is also an element of vilifying the Saudis and picking a fight because people have had enough."
A senior US military officer speaking under the condition of anonymity told the Los Angeles Times that Saudi nationals compose 45 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq who actively target US forces and that 50 percent of Saudi militants come to Iraq as suicide bombers.
But Saudi-based analyst Adel al-Toraifi has a different take: "I think it is radical Shiite elements loyal to Iran and Syria who are doing this to blame the Saudis so as to take the pressure off themselves from the Americans."
On Wednesday, US and Iraqi forces killed at least 30 militiamen that were facilitating the transport of explosives into Iraq from Iran and sending Iraqis to Iran for "terrorist training," said the US military. Twelve other members of what the US calls "Special Groups" were arrested in a overnight raid in Sadr City, the Shiite slum in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrived in Tehran on Wednesday to discuss security and economic cooperation with Iran. Business, diplomatic, cultural, and religious ties are rapidly deepening between both countries.
Mr. Maliki even vowed Monday to crack down on the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization, an Iranian dissident group once nurtured by Saddam Hussein during his long war with Iran's clerical regime but is now under the protection of US forces in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad.
One Saudi fatwa allegedly called for the destruction of the mausoleum of Imam Hussein in Karbala, south of Baghdad. The violent death of the third imam and his companions in battle against the caliph's army in AD 680 marked the schism between Sunnis and Shiites. The intensity of the standoff over the centuries tended to track regional political upheaval.
And Iraq authorities are taking the threats seriously, especially in light of the bombing of the twin minarets at the Askariya shrine in Samarra north of Baghdad in June that followed an attack on its dome in February 2006.
A three-day ban on vehicle traffic starting Wednesday has been imposed in Baghdad with extra checkpoints springing up all over the city.
The annual pilgrimage to Kadhimiya
In Kadhimiya Tuesday, the emphasis was on displaying faith.
Tents were set up all along the main market street leading to Bab el-Mrad (Gate of Need), the entrance of the dazzling shrine with its glistening twin golden domes and its four minarets.
In one tent, Mahdi al-Kadhimi and his fellow Kadhimiya merchants have stacked bags of rice and beans that will be used to cook free meals for the weary pilgrims, many of whom traveled for days on foot from all over Iraq. Distributing food, water, and tea to pilgrims is considered a blessed act.
Giant speakers fill the air with the sound of Shiite laments intended to infuse spirituality and fervor to the occasion.
A wooden cage with dangling chains, and mannequins posing as Abbasyid-era sentries, standing guard is supposed to replicate Imam al-Kadhim's time in captivity. He is depicted bearded and shackled in a colorful banner pinned to the inside of the cage.
All of these visual displays of Shiite faith and its veneration of shrines are considered acts of blasphemy by puritan Sunni Islam that reigns in Saudi Arabia.
"To each his own," says Mr. Kadhimi shrugging off talk of the new Saudi fatwas.
At the shrine's gate, police search everyone. In addition to government forces, Sadr's militiamen play an important role in securing the area. Heavily armed men in black shirts and military style khaki pants roam the streets. Mr. Araji, the local leader who was once detained by US forces, says they are not from the movement's Mahdi Army militia but are personal guards of visiting parliamentarians from the same movement.
On Sunday, an altercation between one of these armed men and an Iraqi soldier degenerated into a firefight that killed a woman pilgrim, according to Araji, who was caught in the crossfire.
As pilgrims approach the inner sanctum of the shrine with its vast marble esplanade many, entranced by the moment, fall down on their knees in tears.
Adel Said and his wife hold the hands of their little children.
"These anti-Shiite fatwas are not new, they have been around for hundreds of years, I think some people may be agitating to stir up trouble for political gains," says Mr. Said, who plans to come again to the shrine on Thursday without his family as part of a massive procession that will leave Sadr City to the east on foot at dawn.
Rasheed Abou-Alsamh contributed from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.