Millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims, intent on carrying out a commemoration denied to them here for decades, are defying ongoing bombings to converge on the holy city of Karbala.
Most of the pilgrims are in plastic sandals – some with only tape holding them together – during the three-day walk from Baghdad. Some push friends or relatives in wheelchairs and carry small children. A few wrap themselves in the white shrouds they want to be buried in if they die on the way.
Carrying nothing, they rely on the kindness of Shiites and some Sunnis who set up hospitality tents along the way providing food, medical treatment, and a place to rest – despite the risk posed by terrorist attacks.
“They want to stop us from serving the pilgrims but we won’t be stopped,” says volunteer Jafar Ghazi Mohammad, who lost his mother Saniya Hassan two years ago in the single worst attack on pilgrims, which took place on the northern outskirts of Baghdad. She had volunteered to search women entering the women’s tent.
“We’re much stronger than them. No matter what they do we’re stronger,” says Mr. Mohammad.
Distributing oranges from the basket of his bicycle, he and others say they were undaunted by six roadside bombs dismantled by police this week just a few hundred yards from their tent. Police officers, who asked that their names not be used, said the bombs were disguised in bricks and scattered on the gravel near the highway. A seventh exploded, damaging a minibus but causing no casualties.
Pilgrims remember those killed
Dozens of Iraqis have been killed so far in bombings targeting the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims thronging roads leading to southern Iraqi city where Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was killed in battle by fellow Muslims in 680 A.D. – a battle in which today's Sunni-Shiite split is rooted.
Iraqi authorities expect several million pilgrims to have arrived in Karbala by Saturday for Arbaeen – the 40th day of mourning. More than 30,000 Iraqi police and soldiers have been deployed to Karbala for the first such commemoration since US troops withdrew from Iraq last month.
A roadside shrine
Just inside Baghdad’s northern city limits, many of the pilgrims walking from as far as Iraqi Kurdistan stop at a small roadside shrine marking the site of the single worst attack on pilgrims two years ago.
Under the green concrete dome, Assawar Assam says the prayer for the dead for her school friend Shaima Haider and then leans over the shrine draped with green satin to kiss her photo.
“She was with us in fourth grade,” says Assawar, who stops every time she passes the shrine. “She was very kind. She liked to help the poor, she liked to help everyone.”
It was at one of the hospitality tents here that Maitham Mohammad Dhahr saw a lone, middle-aged woman cross the highway near the village of Boub al-Sham.
“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.
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."