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Shi'ites in Iraq mark Ashura in show of strength

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Shi’ites in Iraq gathered in their thousands to observe an annual ritual of mourning on Wednesday, an event that has become a show of strength for a majority whose public worship was repressed by Saddam Hussein.

Shi'ite pilgrims take part in a religious procession of Ashura in Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad January 7, 2009. REUTERS/Ali Abu Shish (IRAQ)

Ashura, the most important day in the Shi’ite calendar, was largely peaceful, guarded by an unprecedented police and army presence three days after a suicide bomber killed 35 pilgrims outside a Baghdad shrine.

At processions of thousands at Baghdad’s Kadhimiya shrine and at other holy sites in Iraq men sobbed, cut their scalps with daggers and whipped their backs with chains to mourn the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.

A road leading to a golden-domed Mosque at the north Baghdad shrine, scene of the bloody bomb attack Sunday, was again spattered with blood -- but this time it streamed from pilgrims cutting gashes in their heads: a traditional rite of mourning.

Thousands chanted “Haider, Haider” another name for Imam Ali, Imam Hussein’s father, to commemorate the slaying of his son in the 7th century battle of Kerbala.

Groups of men, some riding horses, dressed up in medieval military outfits with spiked helmets and chainmail to re-enact the battle between followers of Hussein and his enemy Yazid. Others waved green and red flags. Women wailed.

Huge vats of stew steamed over wood fires on the roadside and a canal was died red to symbolize Hussein’s blood.

“OUR HERITAGE”

To tighten security, authorities had forbidden women from entering the entire district of Kadhimiya surrounding the Baghdad shrine, because it is hard for male police officers to search them, but Wednesday the ban was lifted.

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A gun attack which wounded four pilgrims in another part of Baghdad late Tuesday underscored the security challenge.

Ashura is the most important and dramatic annual rite distinguishing Shi’ite Muslims from Sunnis and it has become a show of strength for Iraq’s long-repressed majority sect.

“In Saddam’s time, we were cut off from our history, our culture. Now that’s changed. Now we can know our heritage,” said Jasim Mohammed, an engineer.

Sunni militants have frequently attacked pilgrims, beginning with suicide bombings in Baghdad and Kerbala during the first post-Saddam Ashura in 2004 that killed more than 160 people and heralded the sectarian bloodshed that worsened in 2006 and 2007.

But like Baghdad, the southern holy city of Kerbala was calm Wednesday, thanks partly to some 20,000 security forces manning checkpoints with bomb detectors and banning cars.

Local officials said 2 million pilgrims marched through the city, about 55,000 of them from overseas, mostly Shi’ite Iran.

They included 2,500 Indians, 2,700 Bahrainis, more than a thousand pilgrims each from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Malaysia, and 500 American and 750 French Muslims.

“I came with my sons and we were really surprised by how many pilgrims there are,” said Qassim Adouani, 56, who traveled from Bahrain. “This is a very important ritual I had always hoped I would see once in my life. Thanks to God, now I have.”

Men flailed themselves with chains and adults helped kids, some as young as three, whip their backs with little chains.

Arabs and Turkmen in the volatile northern city of Kirkuk also held a march, watched by Iraqi military helicopters.

“Until now, there has been no security breach,” said police commander Brigadier-General Adel Zain al-Abideen.

Many pilgrims said they felt safe in Iraq, now that the government had stamped its authority on formerly lawless places.

“It’s different from the year before because the government is getting stronger. When the government is strong, terrorism will stop,” said Sadeq Jaffer, a construction worker in Baghdad.

Additional Reporting by Sami al-Jumaili in Kerbala; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Giles Elgood

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