Millions of Shiites flock to Iraq to celebrate Ashura

Millions of Shiite Muslims marked the holy day of Ashura in the Iraqi city of Karbala Thursday, beating their heads and whipping their chests and backs with chains to commemorate the killing of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussein.

Shiites from all over the world including Lebanon, Iran, Bahrain, Pakistan and Tanzania brought their young sons to march down the streets in a pilgrimage to the city's shrine, traditionally held to be the tomb of Hussein, who died and was martyred in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.

The battle was one in a series of conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites.

Many pilgrims carrying food and water walked for hundreds of kilometres to the city, following centuries-old rituals, in the hope that walking would earn them more rewards and blessings from God.

"A couple of days ago we arrived from Lebanon to celebrate Ashura in the holy city of Karbala," 45-year-old mother Om Moustafa said.

Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, Shiites have revived almost all of Ashura's religious rituals, which were banned under the former dictator.

Now they are permitted to walk to Karbala, slash their faces with knives and blades and perform scenes from the historical Battle of Karbala before the shrine.

"It is my first time to visit Karbala after the fall of Saddam Hussein. I wish I could visit all the shrines across Iraq. We used to visit it in the 70s, but the firm security measures imposed during Saddam Hussein's era stopped us from coming over," Om Moustafa said.

An atmosphere of grief and sorrow spread all over Karbala, when Shiites started preparing for the holy day on Wednesday night. Outdoors gathering areas were prepared and black banners raised in Karbala's districts and squares to mourn the Imam. Shiites were wearing mourning attire, cried and refrained from parties and weddings.

"I feel very committed to the commemoration, that's why I came among an Iranian group who arrived to Karbala to celebrate Ashura," Zeinab, a 55-year-old Iranian woman, said.

Authorities deployed more than 6,000 policemen atop high buildings and assigned about 22,000 soldiers to the entrances of Karbala ahead of the Ashura religious festival, to ensure the city's security during the celebration.

Karbala was the scene of deadly clashes during a religious ceremony last August between Shiite militias, in which about 50 people were killed and hundreds wounded. ( Dpa )

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