Shiite pilgrims streaming for days toward a Baghdad shrine on Wednesday found themselves talking as much about politics – and the failure of Iraq's leaders to yet form a government, four months after a national election – as their devotions.
Columns of hundreds of thousands of devotees defied suffocating heat – and attacks that had left at least 40 dead and scores wounded over two days – in order to mark the 8th-century death of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, the seventh of Shiite Islam’s 12 most holy saints – and the one, appropriately, revered for his patience during years in prison.
A suicide bomber struck after dark on Wednesday, killing 28 pilgrims and wounding 63, according to the Iraqi police. Several other blasts killed five pilgrims, adding to at least six marchers who died in attacks on Tuesday.
Sunburned from four days of walking, retiree Mohammad Sawaf Jassim stopped to rest at a roadside tent in downtown Baghdad, before Wednesday’s after-dark violence.
A white-robed pilgrim, he had marched 75 miles from the southeast, his faith resonating in his observation that “If we can’t use our legs [to walk], we will use our hands, because [the imams] are our support in this life, and the next life.”
But conversation along the pilgrims’ path has centered on how bickering between Iraq’s politicians since the March 7 election has damaged expectations, and raised fears of greater insecurity.
“It’s the daily talk of the people: politicians and forming a government. Every day,” says Mr. Jassim, sitting on the floor of the tent, as volunteers offered him cold packets of juice, bottles of water, and a plastic dish of rice with orange-brown sauce.
On one side of him was another pilgrim – much younger, clearly exhausted, and lying on his back with his feet elevated on a plastic chair, arm flung over his head. On the other side of him was a coffin draped in black, carried empty to symbolize the death of the imam.
“I voted, and I’m 90 percent disappointed. I hoped for a big change, but nothing has happened,” says Jassim. “There is no big difference, with the new government or the old government. They are the same people; they keep talking and doing nothing.
“Almost everybody agrees with me,” adds Jassim about his fellow worshipers. All the issues are waiting for the formation of the government – even the smallest things.
Security out in force
The pilgrimage reaches a climax on Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Iraqi security forces – who are have deployed a 200,000-strong force of police and soldiers to hinder attacks – closed some roads and bridges across the Tigris, and ordered carts and motorcycles off the streets in a bid to prevent bombers using them to infiltrate the marchers.
“We expect terrorist groups to launch terrorist attacks against pilgrims during the coming hours, but our contingency plans will foil their vicious acts,” said Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Saedi, who is in charge of security in the northern Kadhimiya district, named after the shrine, according to Reuters.
Mass Shiite pilgrimages were banned during the regime of Saddam Hussein, and after his overthrow by US forces, such religious events have come under frequent attack, most often by Sunni militants bent on raising sectarian tensions.
Even the rumor of a bombing in 2005 on a bridge near the shrine led to a panicked stampede during which an estimated 1,000 people died.
“We have the best feeling when we see those visitors – they challenge everything, even death,” says Hussein Sadis, a student volunteer at the rest tent who said he couldn’t count the number of pilgrims who had passed by. He was giving his time, he said, “so on judgment day” he could “tell God the good things that I did.”
The sectarian warfare and ethnic cleansing that raged in Iraq between 2005 and 2007 has now significantly abated. At its peak, it left a monthly death toll of more than 3,000.
“There is an effect on our security situation” from the political squabbling, says Jassim, the retiree who was bringing two sons and four cousins, despite the dangers. “It’s a very big problem because forming the government means settling down the situation and more security.”
Iraqi complaints in recent weeks have centered on lack of electricity, an issue that has dogged the US military and American and Iraqi civilian officials since 2003. Though output is higher than in the past, consumption has also soared with the temperatures this summer.
Jassim says his family gets one hour of electricity out of every five; during the previous regime, he says, his power was “almost continuous.”
To beat the heat on their walk toward Kadhimiya shrine with so many other pilgrims, they walked daily from 3 am to 11 am, and then from 4 pm to 10 pm.
“Don’t talk politics – I hate it,” says Manshad Sekhi Ouda, an accountant on his fourth day of walking. He was surrounded by other pilgrims, eating rice and stew and swatting multitudes of flies in the shade of the rest tent. “We are new to democracy and the idea of elections. Most Iraqis do not have a good experience with these new things.
“I voted in these elections, happily, and still we have these [high] expectations,” adds Mr. Ouda, sweat beading up on his forehead.
Iraqi politicians may take months more to form a government – fellow citizens should practice the patience of Imam Moussa, Ouda says – but the result will never be like that of Saddam Hussein.
“We have worked so hard not to go back to those days of the One Great Leader,” adds Ouda. “The effects of Saddam’s reign are very big, and we need even more time to overcome them.”