Million Shiites mark Ashura

KARBALA (AFP) — More than a million Shiites, many beating their heads with knives, marked the mourning ceremony of Ashura Thursday amid heavy Iraqi security presence to prevent stampedes and attacks.
Commemorations of Ashura, which remembers the slaying of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein in the southern Iraqi city in the 7th century, have been marred in the past two years by rebel attacks that left scores dead.

Eight-thousand security personnel imposed a massive lockdown on Karbala Thursday, forbidding access to cars, searching hotels and conducting body searches on thousands of black-clad pilgrims.

“The ceremony was attended by more than a million pilgrims who participated since sunrise,” Karbala police chief General Razeq Abd Ali Tayi told AFP.

Large groups of men with shaven heads marched towards the mausoleum of Imam Hussein flagellating their heads with knives and swords as part of the mourning ceremonies commemorating Hussein’s martyrdom.

“I am participating in this ceremony as it is the least I can offer to Imam Hussein who gave his life for Islam,” said Riaz Mustafa, 30, whose head was bleeding from deep gashes after series of cuts.

Clad in white burial shroud, now drenched in blood, Mustafa was among the hundreds who were bleeding profusely from the rituals of self-flagellation meant to evoke sufferings of Hussein in his final hours.

“This is the third time I am participating since the fall of the regime,” Mustafa told AFP. “I am happy to see that the ceremony is being conducted without any government interference.”

Outlawed under the Sunni-dominated regime of ousted president Saddam Hussein, Ashura is the most venerated of Shiite events and has been targeted by Sunni Arab insurgents in previous years.

In 2004, 170 people were killed in attacks in Baghdad and Karbala and another 44 died in a single incident in Karbala in 2005.

Iraq’s majority and conservative Shiite community has now emerged as the dominant force in the country’s postwar politics.

On Friday, the election commission was set to announce the final results of the December elections, in which the conservative Shiite United Iraqi Alliance has emerged as the largest bloc winning 128 seats of the 275-member parliament, according to provisional figures.

And on Saturday the alliance will declare its candidate for the prime minister’s post. The announcement, originally scheduled for Monday, was delayed for the Ashura ceremony.

After midday, thousands of pilgrims started running towards the Hussein Shrine chanting slogans “Hussein Hussein! We will not forget you.”

The run, which started from the eastern gate of Karbala towards the shrine, marked the closing ritual of the ceremony, after which the devotees began to disperse.

The police struggled to control the crowd to make way for the running devotees amid fears of a possible stampede.

Tayi said the ceremony went off peacefully but for a sole rocket attack carried out by rebels on the western side of the town.

“There were no casualties as the rocket fell on an open farm at around 11:35am (0835 GMT). We have rounded up a few Iraqi suspects,” Tayi said.

Tayi said the security was tight and even authorised vehicles were not allowed near the mausoleum, while policemen disguised as civilians mingled with the crowd.

“The security measures will be maintained till all the pilgrims leave Karbala,” he added.

Coalition forces’ spokesman Major General Rick Lynch told reporters in Baghdad that Iraqi security forces had foiled a cell planning suicide attacks against worshippers prior to the ceremony.

“From the intelligence we received, these individuals in this particular organisation were planning suicide attacks against the pilgrims of Ashura and by taking those 19 people off the street they couldn’t plan and execute their violence,” he said.

“So far today it’s been uneventful, a tribute to Iraqi security forces,” Lynch added. Coalition forces were to provide air support during Ashura in case of emergency.

Hundreds of Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan also participated in processions that marched peacefully towards the Hussein mausoleum.

Dozens of mobile clinics were parked at every corner and close to the mausoleum to treat the bleeding men who, after a quick shower, were seen nursing their wounds.

Imams also narrated the suffering of Hussein and his followers and his eventual martyrdom, and plays were performed portraying the events.

Some pilgrims also took the opportunity to protest against Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published by some European newspapers, while in Najaf, the other holy city for Shiites, Ashura mourners burnt Danish flags.

The 500-strong Danish force operating in southern Iraq kept a low profile during the period of the ceremonies, said Danish officials.

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