- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

BAGHDAD Thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims waving black, green and red flags and chanting religious slogans marched from all directions yesterday toward the holiest city in Iraq Karbala.
The pilgrimage, banned under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, was a demonstration of Iraq's newfound freedom and the effect that religious devotion is set to make in the post-Saddam Iraqi political scene.
"Last year, I made the same pilgrimage," one pilgrim told a Western reporter. "But I had to move down back streets and through villages. This time, we can go through the main streets of the country. God is great."
As groups of pilgrims came streaming down the highways from the outskirts of Baghdad to the north and from the south, young men in civilian clothes worked as an informal police force, marshaling the pilgrim groups and allowing occasional traffic to weave through the throng.
On the road, there was no sign of the assault rifles that had been carried by hundreds of militiamen in Baghdad, after an estimated 30,000 Muslim men poured out of noon prayers Friday. That day, after the mullahs condemned the coalition "occupation," the religious faithful poured into the streets carrying anti-American signs and chanting anti-American slogans.
But yesterday, the march toward the holy city to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson who was beheaded in 680 after battling the Umayyad caliphate showed only a few signs of anti-American or anti-Western sentiment. Many carried portraits of the martyred religious leader. Marshals were helpful, giving polite directions to passing cars carrying Western reporters.
But others shouted, "Down U.S.A., down U.S.A.," raising their fists as tanks rumbled past, throwing up dust.
Others carried political banners saying: "Let the Iraqi people choose its government."
In windy and muggy conditions, the pilgrims stopped by the roadside from time to time to eat lamb and onions, cooked by women in black scarves. Large tents were set up along the way for pilgrims to rest and get out of the sun.
At the town of Hilla, the pilgrims turned left toward their final destination, past a large mural depicting Saddam with a gun, his face pocked with bullet holes.
It can be an arduous 10-day march from Basra in the far south, the Shi'ite center where Saddam crushed a rebellion after the Gulf war in 1991, costing countless lives.
But from Baghdad, 70 miles to the northeast, those leaving yesterday would be in plenty of time for the high point of the ceremonies Wednesday.
"Hussein, the martyr of Karbala, the grandson of the prophet, leader of the youth in heaven," men chanted from a poem.
Sabah Shakir, a 35-year-old from a Shi'ite-dominated poor district still known as Saddam City, said Saddam's regime banned the commemoration of Imam Hussein and would jail anyone caught walking to Karbala to observe the occasion.
"We used to walk only during the night near houses away from the main roads, and we hid in the day," said the peddler, who made the pilgrimage in 1999.
Another man was not so lucky when he tried that year.
"Security personnel chased us and hit us with sticks. They broke my brother's arm, but we managed to run away and reach Karbala," Ni'ma Kadhim said.
Ali Fadhil, 30, said he had been caught and had to sign a document warning him he would be hanged if he tried it again.
Mr. Fadhil said there was no real difference between Sunnis and Shias, whose original split comes from disagreements about Muhammad's succession.
"Saddam was the one who sowed division," he said.
Imam Hussein was killed by Sunnis in a battle in Karbala, and the pilgrimage Arbaiin marks the 40th day after his death, the anniversary of which is marked with the Ashura holy day. Sunni Muslims also mourn his death but less fervently.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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