Walking, crawling and dragging themselves on the ground, men and women arrived in the city, home to a battle in 680 AD that martyred Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed. To demonstrate their sadness for the Imam’s death, men slashed their bodies with swords and made bloody gashes in their heads.
Under Saddam’s largely Sunni Muslim regime, Shiites, who comprise a majority of the Iraqi population, experienced severe suppression. In 1977, the last time Shiites celebrated the pilgrimage, known as the Arbaiin, Saddam’s police forces killed many on the road to Karbala. Tuesday’s pilgrimage marked the first time since then that Shiites could march freely.
“We were prohibited from visiting these shrines for a long time by the Baath Party and their agents,” Abed Ali Ghilan, told the Associated Press in Karbala. “This year we thank God for ridding us of the dictator Saddam Hussein and for letting us visit these shrines.”
More than 1 million people are expected to participate in the pilgrimage, U.S. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters at Central Command in Doha, Qatar. He said that the procession has moved “without any significant incidents.”
Although the pilgrimage was made possible by the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam, some pilgrims marched with anti-American signs and called on the Americans to leave their country.
“Yes, yes to Islam,” some reportedly chanted. “No to America, no to Israel, no to colonialism and no to occupation.”
U.S. forces stayed out of Karbala on Tuesday, in an effort to avoid confrontation, according to Reuters, but U.S. helicopters flew over the crowd.
Absent from the festivities were two Shiite clerics: Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was killed on April 10 in a Najaf mosque, and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, who may have stayed away because of security concerns, according to the Associated Press.
Although divisions within the Shiite community have caused some violence in recent weeks, the Karbala pilgrims seemed to set aside their differences, heeding the advice of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, deputy chief of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
“You must maintain the holy nature of your pilgrimage,” he said, adding that violence could bring catastrophe. “You must be kind and affectionate to each other, treat each other like brothers and believe in the unity of your cause.”