The Boston Globe, Apr. 23, 2003
By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff
KARBALA, Iraq – Pounding their heads with machetes and daggers, their faces and clothes drenched in blood, Shi’ite pilgrims from all over Iraq mourned the death of their sect’s founder yesterday, in a mass outpouring that was as much political as religious.
This week marked the first time in nearly 30 years that Iraq’s majority Shi’a Muslims could pray without fear of reprisal or execution by the government, and more than 1 million people flooded the holy city of Karbala to pay homage at the shrines of Hussein and Abbas, two of the most holy places for Shi’ites.
A jubilant crowd reveled in its newly recovered religious freedom by beating themselves until the city center shook with the sound of palms on flesh. Others whipped themselves with chains, and some cut themselves with blades, a rite forbidden even by leading Shi’ite clerics.
”Haidar, O Haidar,” they cried in unison, calling one of the names of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, whom the Shi’ites consider his rightful heir.
Shi’ites remember Ali’s bloody death at the hands of Sunni Muslims at the site of his murder in Karbala. Pilgrims wail and beat themselves out of shame that their ancestors failed to protect him and his two sons, Hussein and Abbas.
Yesterday’s boisterous predawn scene sent a clear and, to some, an alarming message: In Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Shi’ites cannot be ignored.
The grass-roots response to the call to pilgrimage also raises a specter that terrifies the White House: a replay of Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979.
But rifts within the Shi’ite clergy were also on display yesterday in Karbala. How they play out could determine whether a new Iraqi government has to contend with a fiery brand of politicized Islam or whether the clerics will retreat to their center of learning, the Hawza in Najaf, and serve solely as religious authorities.
Shi’ite clerics offer one of the only organized alternatives to the deposed Ba’ath Party. Many of Iraq’s roughly 15 million Shi’ites, about 60 percent of the population, look to the Hawza in Najaf – one of several Shi’ite seminaries, with others in Qum, Iran, and in London – as the only legitimate source of authority.
When leading clerics instructed them not to resist advancing American forces, they obeyed. Now, the Hawza has decided not to cooperate with the American occupation forces, and many of the faithful await an edict on whether to take up arms against the US military.
”It’s impossible for us to cooperate,” said Sheik Hamid Meyahi, a young cleric from the Hawza who was circulating outside the shrine of Hussein yesterday. ”Both Saddam and US are tyrants. ”
It remains unclear whether the clerics can control their zealous adherents and whether the political imams will outfox their more traditionalist peers and seize a spot at Iraq’s political table.
Yesterday morning’s self-inflicted bloodletting was one sign that the scholarly clerics might not have as strong a hold over Iraq’s Shi’ites as they would like.
”We prefer that if people spill blood, they do so by donating it to the sick,” Meyahi said. ”But you must understand. These people are stressed because they’ve been oppressed for so long. It’s an understandable outburst.”
Hundreds of men disregarded their clerics’ edicts yesterday morning, taking to the streets at dawn to flagellate themselves in grief over the death of Imam Ali and his two sons in the seventh century. Hussein and Abbas were led into an ambush and killed in Karbala, leading to the schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.
Top clerics stayed away from Tuesday’s pilgrimage because of security concerns, after two top Shi’ite leaders were killed earlier this month in Najaf. But the Hawza had clear talking points, and it delivered its message through the turbaned imams to be seen everywhere, through banners carried by crowds, and through wall postings.
”No America, no Saddam,” one sign declared. ”We will accept only Islam.”
All over the city, men armed with AK-47s and sticks directed traffic and pilgrims. They wore identity cards issued by the Hawza. Clerics decided whether cars could enter the city and coordinated food and outdoor sleeping arrangements for the million-plus pilgrims.
The two figures most frequently mentioned by the Shi’ites here are Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, head of the Hawza, and Sheik Sayyid Muqtada Sadr, a young cleric whose highly regarded father and two brothers were reportedly killed by the regime in 1999.
Sistani held his present position through the final years of Hussein’s rule, and he believes that the Hawza should stay out of politics.
Sadr, on the other hand, wants direct involvement in the formation of a new government. His followers throughout Iraq have stepped in to fill the power vacuum in places like Karbala and Saddam City, the vast slum northeast of Baghdad, which some of his followers have renamed Sadr City, in honor of his father.
The two men’s split is well known, but clerics and other Shi’ites who spoke out in Karbala were desperate yesterday to portray Iraq’s Muslims as united in favor of a moderate religious government and a quick end to the US military presence here.
”Get out, America. We refuse wardship, guardianship, and occupation,” said one man, reading haltingly from a computer printout, in English, signed by the Hawza. ”We want an Islamic government.”
Sheik Souheil al-Okadi, 25, who wears a black turban to signify that he is a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed, said the Shi’ites suffered inordinately under Hussein’s rule and were grateful that his regime had fallen.
”We are against invasion, but not against liberation,” Okadi said. ”The Americans will define themselves as conquerors or liberators.”
Many of the pilgrims who walked hundreds of miles barefoot to mourn here yesterday echoed that sentiment.
”The Americans have given us a flicker of freedom by getting rid of Saddam,” said Nael Habib, 36, who said he had been imprisoned and tortured for taking part in the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, which ended in a brutal crackdown when the United States refused to back it.
”We will wait for the Hawza to tell us how long we should wait before fighting the Americans,” Habib said.
Still, anti-Americanism was not as evident yesterday as it had been at protests in Baghdad Friday, the first day of Muslim prayer, after the government had fled. Yesterday, US Army soldiers riding in two Humvees drove by one of Karbala’s shrines without drawing any reaction from pilgrims.
Shi’ites throughout southern Iraq suffered greatly after the uprising after the 1991 Gulf War.
Hussein dispatched some of his top lieutenants to suppress the Shi’ites, who say hundreds of thousands were killed. The region also suffered under grueling poverty, because it was systematically deprived of water, food, medical resources, and infrastructure.
The most emotion yesterday was reserved for Ali, Hussein, and Abbas and for the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Thousands of men and women circled the gold-domed shrines of Abbas and Hussein in central Karbala, all day and all night, pounding their chests. Many carried stylized portraits of Shi’ite imams.
Women wept, and men sprayed the crowd with rose water, meant as a blessing from Imam Ali. The smell of burning coals and incense filled the air.
”Where is the man who oppressed us? Where is Saddam the dog?” the crowd chanted, with drums and flesh-slapping keeping the rhythm. ”Revenge, revenge, it has been a long wait.”