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Saturday, January 19, 2008

BULLETIN: In Shia Iraq- An unusually peaceful Ashura.

About 20,000 Iraqi troops stood guard in Karbala as one million Shia faithful crowded through the holy city of Karbala in Iraq, to celebrate the fifth festival of Ashura they've been allowed to hold publicly since Saddam Hussein was overthrown during the US invasion in, 2003. Under Saddam, public displays of devotion among the Shia were prohibited. However, almost every Ashura since 2003 has been marred by violence, the worst of it caused by Sunni terrorists bombing the masses of Shia pilgrims that packed the city streets.

Ashura, a festival of mourning and atonement, marks the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet in the battle that decided the final separation of Shia from Sunni Muslims, the ascendancy of the Sunnis and the subsequent repression of the Shia.

This weekend's Ashura was also marked by raids of Iraqi military units against a Shia cult in Basra and Nassiriya, in which a dozen were killed. So complex have the sectarian divisions among the Shia become that a feast with historical significance can set off internecine tensions. The dangers of Sunni attacks on Shia during Ashura have already been bad enough

Ashura dates back to 680 AD when the Caliph Muawija died and his son Yazid beame Caliph in Damascus. In so doing, Yazid pre-empted the claim of the line of Ali, the first dissenting Shia Caliph who had set up in Karbala, in Iraq. Ali had been murdered by dissidents in 661 and his son, Hussein, was now the rival claimant to Yazid.

Ali's widow, Fatima, was determined that her son Hussein should succeed to the Caliphate. Their rival Yazid arrived from Damascus at the head of an army and confronted Hussein's troops at Karbala. During the fighiting, Hussein was outnumbered. As Hussein was dying of thirst, his brother Abbas fought his way through to the banks of the Euphrates but was killed bringing water back to the camp. On March 2, Hussein's followers were massacred by Yaxid and Hussein beheaded. "Death with dignity is better than life with humiliation" were his last words. The Shia (the word means 'partisans' as in 'partisans of Ali') failed to arrive in support of Hussein and it's in memory of their regret that Ashura was made a day of atonement, celebrants whipping themselves bloody or lacerating their heads with a sabre, suggesting, 'never again'. Hussein's infant son survived to continue the line of Ali and lead the Shia, while-Yazid founded the Umayyad Dynasty of the Sunnis. Ashura is celebrated in the first month of Islam's lunar calendar.

After 680, mosque and mausoleum complexes housing the tombs of Hussein and his brother Abbas were built and Karbala became a shrine city. In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on April 9, 2003, , on the first free Ashura, a previously forbidden ecstatic, almost Medieval Shiism rose spontaneously from the grave. Huge crowds appeared, beating their chests in honour of the martyr Hussein. They waved green palm leaves for ecstasty, tapped their heads against clay tablets made from the holy soil of Najaf, burial place of the great Imams who succeeded Ali and Hussein. In a week, a staggering three million pilgrims marched from Baghdad to Karbala. Foreign observers could be forgiven for being stunned.; the world hardly knew that Iraq was the birthplace and cradle of Shiism the world over.

Over the centuries, wealthy Shia charities had developed in Najaf and Karbala, receiving donations from millions of Shia pilgrims, particularly from Iran. The coffers in the mausoleum shrines of Hussein and his brother Abbas in Karbala came to represent enormous wealth. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Shia clerical hierarchy was still formally determined by the seminary or 'Hawza' in Najaf, headed by the Ayatollah Sistani. However, the authority in Najaf was vulnerable to intense clerical rivalries unleashed by the liberation.

The upstart radical cleric, Moqtada al Sadr began to challenge the Ayatollah Sistani, first for control of the mosque in Najaf with its enormous endowments and then for control of the hugely rich mauseoleums of Hussein and Abbas in Karbala. In mid-October, 2003, rival militias of Al Sadr and of the Ayatolah Sistani fought pitched battles over the two mausolea, with dozens killed. The US army, in an attempt to stop the fighting, was drawn in, also sustaining casualties. In April 2004, Karbala was the scene of more carnage as the Shia celebrated their second full festival of Ashura. Sunni suicide bomebers, under orders of Al Qaeda in Iraq chief Zarqawi, killed allmost two hundred among densely packed crowds of mourners, usnig suicide bombers and mortars.

On the Ashura of January 2007, the violence moved from Karbala to Najaf where a mysterious Shia sectarian splinter group known as the Soldiers of Heaven confronted the Iraq army after the latter had opened fire on a funeral procession at a check point. The group, a nationalist movement which rejected the Najaf hierarchy because of its support by Iran is believed to have had some Sunni support. After a full day's fighting with Iraqi security forces supported by the US military, 263 of the sect were killed including its leader, Ahmed Hassan al Basri.
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