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26 February 2004

Iraqi Shi'a Observe First Ashura Since Fall of Ba'athist Regime

Shi'a unable to compare current freedom with previous restrictions

By David Shelby and Hilary White
Special to the Washington File

Washington -- For the first time in more than three decades, Iraqi Shi'a will be able to observe the holy day of Ashura and its associated period of mourning this year without the shadow of the Ba'athist regime hanging over the ceremonies.

While many Shi'a made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala immediately following the war last year, this is the first time they will be free to observe the actual day of Ashura since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

According to Sayyed Farqat Al Qizwini, Director of the Hilla University for Humanitarian, Scientific and Religious Studies, "Saddam Hussein absolutely prevented the observance of Ashura. He actually imprisoned many people who were practicing this ritual."

"The army and the security forces used to surround Karbala and Najaf for two months to keep people from practicing the rituals," he said in a recent interview. "They used to enforce checkpoints on all roads leading to Karbala. If anyone tried to pass the checkpoint, he would have been killed or arrested."

Ashura, which falls on the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a seminal moment in the history of Shi'a Islam.

Following the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD, disagreement arose within the Muslim community as to who should succeed him in his position as commander of the faithful. The mantle eventually passed to the Prophet's father-in-law Abu Bakr despite the belief of some Muslims that power should devolve to Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law Ali.

Ali finally acceded to the position of caliph (the leader of the community) in 656, but was challenged by Mu'awiya, a successful warrior who was serving as the governor of Syria and wanted to lead the Muslim community.

Five years into his rule, Ali was assassinated, and Mu'awiya assumed the caliphate, but this did not set well with the Shi'at Ali (partisans of Ali) who continued to believe that the position should remain with the descendents of the Prophet.

Mu'awiya reached an agreement with Ali's eldest son Hassan, by which Hassan withdrew from politics, but the Shi'at Ali continued to group around the younger son Hussein, who was also, of course, the grandson of Mohammed. When Mu'awiya died in 680 AD, Hussein believed it was his duty to challenge Mu'awiya's son Yazid for leadership of the community.

Hussein and 72 supporters set out for the southern Iraqi city of Kufa in the hopes of raising additional support, but the group was ambushed and besieged in the desert outside of Karbala, located in modern-day Iraq. After a 10-day siege, on the tenth of Muharram, Hussein and his forces were attacked and massacred.

The adherents of the Shi'at Ali became the community now known as Shi'a Muslims.

According to Qizwini, "Saddam prevented the clerics from making lectures and statements about the Battle of Karbala and from referring to the memory of Imam Hussein."

He added, "Most importantly, Saddam prevented anyone from having any book that had Imam Hussein's name or the story of the Battle of Karbala. He executed many young people who had a book like this."

"After the liberation of Iraq, the people were allowed to do three things -- read the history of Karbala and the Battle of Karbala, listen to the lectures in the Mosques about the history of Karbala, and walk to Karbala," he said.

Qizwini said, "This year I am sure the Shi'a will feel for the first time that they can again reconnect with their Imam Hussein." He expects several million Iraqi Shi'a to undertake the pilgrimage to Karbala.

However the pilgrimage is not the only religious observance associated with Ashura. During this period, many Shi'a observe daytime fasts and nightly vigils. The observances reach their peak on the ninth and tenth days of Muharram during which groups engage in commemorative processions and perform street plays and tableaux vivants recalling the events of Hussein's martyrdom.

Recognized cantors will lead mourning chants in mosques and during special observances in people's homes. These chants, known as the latmiya, typically recount the suffering of Hussein and his supporters during the siege in the desert and the cruel massacre of the forces during the hour of the Friday noon prayer.

But Ashura is also a time to remember the poor and share food with the less fortunate. Many people sponsor open dinners in the street or prepare food for their friends and neighbors.

In a bid to woo Shi'a support for his regime following U.S. attacks on Iraqi military bases in 1998, Saddam allocated funds to Ba'ath Party officials in Shi'a areas to sponsor free meals during Ashura.

Qizwini said, however, "He used this as propaganda to tell the world that he is the grandson of Imam Hussein and to tell the world he likes the Shi'a and respects them! But the funny thing was only the Ba'athists ate that food. None of the Shi'a did."

A 2003 report from Britain's Channel 4 News also observed that as the regime was sponsoring meals, Iraqi television was airing a series entitled "The Conspiracy," which recounted the Shi'a uprising following the 1991 Gulf War and the violent manner in which it was crushed.

Qizwini said that upon listening to the stories and sermons in the mosque this year, the Shi'a "will know Imam Hussein sacrificed for human beings, justice, freedom, and peace on Earth -- just like Jesus Christ did for the same reasons."

He said, "It is impossible to compare Shi'a freedom today with all the restrictions during Saddam's time. Now we have freedom for Shi'a, freedom for Iraq, and freedom is open without restrictions."

This year, the month of Muharram began February 22, and the climactic tenth day will fall on March 2. While the ninth and tenth of Muharram mark the height of the observances, the period of mourning continues for 40 days, and some Shi'a continue to observe the traditional activities for the full period.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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