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What Does Ashura Mean To Shi'ite Muslims?

WATCH: Afghan Shi'a mark Ashura on December 27. (Reuters video)

Millions of Shi'ite Muslims gathered at shrines and mosques across Iraq today for the Ashura religious festival while Iraqi forces stood watch against the bloody attacks that have marred past pilgrimages.

Security for the event has been tight since suspected Al-Qaeda suicide bombers and mortar attacks killed 171 people during Ashura in Karbala and Baghdad in 2004.

Here are some facts about Ashura:

What Is Ashura?

* Ashura is the 10th day of the lunar month of Muharram when according to Islamic tradition Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in battle in 680 AD.

* It is observed in Iraq and in other countries with sizable Shi'ite communities, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Several million pilgrims were expected to converge on Karbala, Iraq.

* Sunni Muslims also mourn Hussein's death, but less fervently, and Ashura is a reminder of Sunni-Shi'ite rifts dating from disputes over the Prophet Mohammad's succession.

The Battle

* On the first day of Muharram, the army of Caliph Yazid laid siege to Hussein and followers in the desert near Kerbala. Hussein was killed in battle 10 days later after he had refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid. Hussein was decapitated and his head was taken to Damascus, the seat of the Ummayad dynasty to which Yazid belonged.

The Ceremony

* During the ceremony, Shi'ites beat their heads and chests and gash their heads with swords to show their grief and echo the suffering of Imam Hussein. Under Saddam Hussein's secular rule, such displays were banned in Iraq.

-- Reuters