Shiites defy militants, march to holy cities

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 today, 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.

"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. "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.

"They challenge death," the caretaker, 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."