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.
Although the attacks appeared intended to reignite sectarian violence, the Shiite pilgrims were unwilling to blame their Sunni countrymen for the suicide bombers.
"It's people from outside Iraq," says Suad Mohammad Katham, who walked for two days from Baghdad with her 13-year-old niece. "They must have drugged her and then put the vest on her."
Security forces guard route
On Saturday, after the latest bombing, random body searches by volunteers were stepped up on the roads out of Baghdad. Iraqi security forces stood watch every 200 yards along the 40-mile route from the capital to Karbala, where tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police were deployed. Near Mahmudiyah, US backup included air support and a quick reaction force. Lt. Col. Jim Bradford, a US Army battalion commander, said an estimated 4 million pilgrims had passed through Muhmudiyah with no major incidents.
The wave of pilgrims, many of them poor and jobless, carried a sea of prayers of a people recovering from war and a country struggling to put itself together. Many were making the pilgrimage to ask Imam Hussein to intercede with God to cure loved ones.
Each pilgrim's path is unique
Suad Mohammad Katham, her plastic sandals digging into her feet, was walking to Karbala to give thanks for her mother's improved health. Ms. Katham had made a previous pilgrimage to pray for her.
Nathal Qassim had a flag of Hussein furling around her traditional black cloak. Her husband was shot in an armed robbery six months ago on Baghdad's Palestine Street. "I'm praying to find the murderer and for all of those who have loved ones missing," she says.
In Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, where the hold of religious extremists has loosened, huge flags depicting Hussein flew next to shop windows crammed with fuzzy red hearts and plastic roses for Valentine's Day.
With the almost unimaginable violence of the last two years waning, Iraqis seem to be finding a way to live together again – a willingness to forgive is seen as a key test to the country's future.
Torture didn't break spirit
At one of the hospitality tents in Karrada, Thamer Tariq Barhoum, an unemployed house painter, says he was released from Camp Bucca, a US prison in the south of Iraq, six months ago when he was found innocent after spending 40 months in US and Iraqi detention.
Mr. Barhoum, a father of six, says he was tortured by Iraqi security forces after being accused of attacking US soldiers. He bears the scars of being hit with a rifle butt and what he says was burning plastic dripped onto his wrists.
Despite all this, Barhoum says he bears no hatred against the Iraqi officer who he says administered the torture. "I don't have anything against him," he says. "After he beat me, he brought me food and apologized – he was ordered by his superiors to do it." He says he was better treated by his American captors after he was handed over.
A tribal court – more trusted than Iraq's civil courts – ordered the Iraqi policeman who falsely accused him to pay more than $4,000 in compensation. He is still waiting for compensation from US authorities. "They gave me $20 for taxi fare," he says.
• Awadh al-Taee contributed in Baghdad.