What Arbain in Iraq is like

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

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.

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.

As it happened we were only able to get within 4 miles of the city by car, and made the rest of the way in on foot, amid thousands of pilgrims.
They ranged from small clusters of men in ratty t-shirts trudging into the city to full-scale reenactments of the Ummayid defeat of Hussein: red-clad horsemen representing the Ummayids leading the Shiite women, with ropes around their necks, into slavery, and a representation of Hussein’s head on a pike at the front of the procession.

Other groups of black-clad men, accompanied by drummers, advanced ponderously on the city, lashing their backs with metal whips in time to the beat. It’s supposed to be a somber occasion, but it felt like an Iraqi block party on steroids – stretching as far as you cared to walk in any direction.

Legend has it that Hussein’s tiny band was without water or provisions, and the night before the fateful battle he took his infant daughter to the Ummayid forces to ask for water.

Instead, they were met by a hail of arrows, his daughter struck through the neck (lurid posters of her dying in his arms were for sale along the route into the city) and he retreated.

The next day, Hussein and his followers died thirsty - which is the reason for a tradition of charity along the route that’s amazing in a country as poor as Iraq.
Every few feet, it seems, locals with bath tubs of rose scented water urged the pilgrims to drink; every 20 feet or so Iraqi families cooked huge vats of biryani rice, insistently offering food and drink to everyone who passed, including us.

I found this touching: Rather than demanding the marchers deny themselves water in remembrance of Hussein, they insist no one go hungry or thirsty this day.
We passed through five or so checkpoints coming into the city, none of them manned by Sadr’s men.

Instead, the Badr Brigade, associated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was handling security.

Despite its name, SCIRI is a far more moderate group than Sadr’s followers, and its leader sits on the US-appointed Governing Council.

Once inside the city, a separate group of militants loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the reclusive cleric who commands the broadest respect among Iraq’s Shiites, was in charge.

The residents of Karbala told us that the Mahdi Army had vanished into the woodwork once these militias asserted themselves, though the situation was still tense.
We were taken to the head of security at the Shrine of Hussein and assigned two armed guards for our duration in town, for our own protection, he said. “There is no law and order aside from what we can provide,” he told us.

The absence of Sadr’s men was a piece of good news, but not an uncomplicated one, since, after all, the city is in the hands of militias, albeit friendly ones.

Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Iraq, has repeatedly vowed to disarm Iraq’s militias and at various times in the past six months has said an agreement to get all nonuniformed Iraqis to lay down their arms was near.

But the fighting of the past month has convinced various militia leaders that they’d be fools to disarm, since the US-trained local security forces have run from almost every fight they’ve been faced with.

This obviously has profound implications for Iraq as real political competition – with elections hoped for next January – begins to gear up. But we were more than well treated.

When it came time to trudge out of the city at the end of the day, our minders excused themselves, and returned a little later laden with boxes of a local sweet made from palm sugar to make our trip home easier.

It was an excellent day in Iraq

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