Shiites in Iraq gathered in their thousands to observe an annual ritual of mourning on Wednesday, an event that has become a show of strength for a majority whose public worship was repressed by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Ashura, the most important day on the Shiite calendar, was largely peaceful, guarded by an unprecedented police and army presence three days after a suicide bomber killed 35 pilgrims outside a Baghdad shrine.
At processions of thousands at Baghdad’s Kadhimiya shrine and at other holy sites in Iraq men sobbed, cut their scalps with daggers and whipped their backs with chains to mourn the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
A road leading to a golden-domed Mosque at the north Baghdad shrine, scene of the bloody bomb attack on Sunday, was again spattered with blood — but this time it streamed from pilgrims cutting gashes in their heads: a traditional rite of mourning.
Thousands chanted “Haider, Haider” another name for Imam Ali, Imam Hussein’s father, to commemorate the slaying of his son in the 7th century battle of Kerbala.
To tighten security, authorities had forbidden women from entering the entire district of Kadhimiya surrounding the Baghdad shrine, because it is hard for male police officers to search them, but on Wednesday the ban was lifted.
A gun attack that wounded four pilgrims in another part of Baghdad late on Tuesday underscored the security challenge.
Ashura is the most important and dramatic annual rite distinguishing Shiite Muslims from Sunnis and it has become a show of strength for Iraq’s long-repressed majority sect.
“In Saddam’s time, we were cut off from our history, our culture. Now that’s changed. Now we can know our heritage,” engineer Jasim Mohammed said.
Sunni militants have frequently attacked pilgrims, beginning with suicide bombings in Baghdad and Kerbala during the first post-Saddam Ashura in 2004 that killed more than 160 people and heralded the sectarian bloodshed that worsened in 2006 and 2007.
But like Baghdad, the southern holy city of Kerbala was calm on Wednesday, thanks partly to some 20,000 security forces manning checkpoints with bomb detectors and banning cars.
Local officials said 2 million pilgrims marched through the city, about 55,000 of them from overseas, mostly Shiite Iran.
They included 2,500 Indians, 2,700 Bahrainis, more than a thousand pilgrims each from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Malaysia, and 500 American and 750 French Muslims.
“I came with my sons and we were really surprised by how many pilgrims there are,” said Qassim Adouani, 56, who traveled from Bahrain.
“This is a very important ritual I had always hoped I would see once in my life. Thanks to God, now I have,” he said.
Men flailed themselves with chains and adults helped kids, some as young as three, whip their backs with little chains.
Arabs and Turkmen in the volatile northern city of Kirkuk also held a march, watched by Iraqi military helicopters.
Anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on the Iraqi resistance on Wednesday to stage “revenge operations” against US forces to protest Israel’s Gaza offensive.
The statement issued by his office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf came as criticism is mounting over civilian deaths in Gaza.
Al-Sadr also urged that Palestinian flags be raised on mosques, churches and buildings in Iraq in a show of solidarity, and that all countries close Israeli embassies.