BAGHDAD, Iraq — Carrying banners with an air of defiance, thousands of Shiite Muslims made the trek toward southern holy cities Friday to lament the death of a revered 7th-century martyr even as they grieved for at least 30 Iraqis killed in recent days.
Bombs targeted the marchers and their supporters Thursday and Friday, an apparent attempt to stoke sectarian discord and interrupt Ashoura, a Shiite observance that commemorates the death in 680 AD of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein. Ashoura falls in the first month of Islam's lunar calendar, which this year coincides with Christmas and New Year's festivities in the Western world.
Iraq's Christian minority also marked a tense holiday, after a historic church was bombed last week and a scuffle with Shiites erupted Friday before Christmas Mass near the northern city of Mosul. Iraqi Christians have cut back their merrymaking and tightened security around churches this year.
In Iraq, the Islamic New Year is marked with somber rituals that build up to Ashoura on Sunday, when a million or more pilgrims are expected to converge on the city of Karbala. Despite the bloodshed, Shiites vowed to carry on with their ceremonies — which include staging passion plays and cooking special dishes — though many said they'd add extra prayers to protect Iraq in the volatile months before elections in March.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
"We pray to leave behind the political differences, the sectarian differences, the ethnic differences. We have to look to the future as one country and one people," said Abbas Redha al Zubeidi, 65, caretaker of the popular Sayyid Idris shrine in Baghdad. "If God sees us making an effort to unite, then we can move away from terrorism. We're all raising our hands and praying for a generous state in which Muslims act with dignity and leaders light a path out of all this."
The Sayyid Idris shrine was a carnival of colors, scents and sounds as Shiites prepared for the ceremonies. Women filled tents with incense and flowers, old men stirred huge vats of a seasonal stew called qima, and teenage boys dressed in black struck themselves with chains in a ritual expression of sorrow.
Such observances were banned under the Sunni Muslim dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and many Shiites blame remnants of the former regime for the latest attacks. In the courtyard of the shrine, marchers, who carried out the rituals in secret under Saddam, vowed they would never again bow to religious oppression — no matter how violent the efforts against them.
"They want to silence these ceremonies, but they're all wrong because their actions will only increase our will," said Feras al Musawi, 35, who welcomed visitors through a microphone. "Almost 30 processions were attacked all over Iraq and what do we have today? Hundreds more tents were set up and more processions were organized."
The shrine itself is a survivor of Iraq's recent political turmoil. Activities were restricted there under Saddam, and rival Shiite parties have fought for control of it since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. The landmark sanctuary, with its sky-blue tiles and sparkling cut glass, has been targeted by mortars, gunfire and nearby bombings. Al Zubeidi, the caretaker, said attendance dropped from several thousand visitors a year to just a few hundred at the peak of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007.
Greater attendance this year reflected security improvements, al Zubeidi said, but he worries that the progress will be undone by election-related violence. He watched with pride as workers buzzed around him, sprucing up the shrine before Ashoura. Processions of young men from the neighborhood will march to Karbala soon.
"They challenge death," al Zubeidi said. "Those on foot know there are car bombs, they know they could be killed, and yet people are defying death and walking, and this is an indication of their faith."
One of the centerpieces of Ashoura is the reenactment of Imam Hussein's martyrdom in passion plays, with actors in vivid tunics, chain-mail armor and cowboy boots standing in for medieval footwear. As the story goes, Hussein and some of his followers were lured to Karbala by residents who then ambushed them. Outnumbered, Hussein fought to the death in a battle that cemented the split between Sunnis and Shiites. Centuries later, the themes of hardship, betrayal and murder resonate with modern-day Iraqis.
Amal Moussa, a 45-year-old housewife, stood in the audience as young men acted out the tragedy from long ago. But current events were on her mind as fat teardrops ran down her face.
"This year is worse than last year. The explosions. The senseless deaths," Moussa said. "I pray that God keeps us and disperses the dark clouds and heartache. May God save Iraqis and preserve our nation."
(McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Sahar Issa and Jinan Hussein contributed from Baghdad.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq