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Iraq: Grateful Shi'ites Making Pilgrimage To Karbala Amid Wariness About U.S. Intentions

The end of the Anglo-American war in Iraq is coinciding with a huge pilgrimage of Shi'ite Muslims, who make up some 60 percent of the Iraqi population. The collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime has encouraged hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites to perform one of their key rituals for the first time in nearly 30 years -- the pilgrimage to Imam Hussein bin Ali's shrine in Karbala, south of Baghdad.

Karbala, Iraq; 22 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi pilgrims have been making their way this week to Karbala, one of the holy cities for Shi'ite Muslims.

Crowded trucks, buses, and cars carry the elderly and children, while young men and women make the long pilgrimage on foot. Tomorrow there will be a mass prayer at the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala to commemorate the martyrdom 14 centuries ago of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Imam Hussein was killed, together with his brother Abbas, in the Battle of Tuff when they came to free the people of Iraq from the tyranny of Yazid bin Muawya.

After 30 years of suppression, millions of Shi'ite Muslims are today enjoying the euphoria of religious freedom in Iraq. They clog the main highway leading to Karbala, carrying portraits of Imam Hussein. They walk in bare feet and beat their chests or hit themselves with chains to atone for Imam Hussein's death -- rituals forbidden by Saddam Hussein's regime.

Most of the pilgrims walk with difficulty, leaning heavily on sticks. They are covered with dust and dirt, thirsty, and sleepless after several days of nonstop walking. But when they reach the shrine of Imam Hussein, they kiss the doors at the entrance to the grand mosque, Hussein's tomb, and the energy seems to return to them.

Most of the Shi'ite pilgrims are eager to talk, proud to have their rituals recognized by the rest of the world. Many of the pilgrims give thanks for allowing them to escape from former President Hussein's brutality.

One young man says he walked 130 kilometers to Karbala to attend this year's commemoration. He says there is a direct connection between Imam Hussein's martyrdom and the U.S.-led war in Iraq. He says both were battles against dictatorship and the brutality of tyrants.

"Al Hussein was the first leader against dictatorship, a man who resisted dictatorship," he said. "He is noble and the most honest man on the planet after the Prophet Muhammad."

While enjoying the first fruits of the post-Saddam era, most of the pilgrims are cautious in their approach toward the U.S. The majority say they are happy that Saddam Hussein is gone but believe the Americans should prove they are the liberators, not the conquerors, of Iraq: "If they are liberators, we are happy and content. But if they are conquerors, we are sad and will resist them."

Pilgrims at the entrance to Imam Hussein's shrine say that what happens in the coming weeks and months will clarify who the Americans are and their real purpose in coming to Iraq. If they let Iraqis rule the country and leave the wealth of the country to its people, they will have been proven sincere in their declarations.

However, other voices among the pilgrims demand that coalition troops leave Iraq immediately and call for the establishment of Islamic rule in Iraq.

"We want an Islamic leader to rule Iraq. We don't welcome Americans," one pilgrim said. "We want neither Saddam nor Americans [to rule us] because they both are infidels."

Many of the pilgrims in Karbala express their happiness at the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, but they also express a lingering fear of the former Iraqi leader. Many say they are praying that his departure is for good, like this woman who was beating her chest at the Karbala shrine: "We are praying here for God to make it true that Saddam Hussein is dead. We suffered so much during these years."

But the former Iraqi leader's presence is still felt in Karbala, like a "ghost," as one Iraqi put it. There have been rumors in Karbala that several pilgrims have died and that several others became sick. If true, it's most likely because of the hot weather, unhygienic conditions, and bad food. But many pilgrims believe Saddam ordered that poisoned food be served to pilgrims to disrupt the pilgrimage.

Another fear of pilgrims concerns the safety of Muhammed Baqir al-Hakim, a well-known Shi'ite imam and leader of the Iran-based group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). He is believed to be in Al-Najaf, another holy place for Shi'ites some 80 kilometers south of Karbala, with plans to visit the shrine tomorrow to make a speech to the pilgrims.

SCIRI opposes a U.S. administration in Iraq and has urged Anglo-American troops to leave Iraq immediately.

Another top Shi'ite cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoi, was murdered in Al-Najaf earlier this month after returning to Iraq from exile, apparently killed by Shi'ite rivals.