- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Two cities holy to Shi'ite Muslims stand squarely in the path of the U.S. advance to Baghdad.
There was fighting Monday near Karbala, regarded as second only to Mecca by Shi'ites, and Najaf.
"The eyes of all Muslims, especially Shi'ites, will be on these areas," said Frederick Denny, chairman of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "This could be seen not only as the defense of one's nation, but as the defense of one's Islamic commitment."
U.S. troops are facing stiff resistance from Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard units in the area.
They also risk inflaming emotions of Shi'ites around the world if they are perceived as not respecting the religious significance of the two cities, Mr. Denny said.
Shi'ites are a minority within Islam.
They split from the majority Sunni sect over the issue of succession to the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, who died in 632.
Shi'ites believe leadership of the faith should lie with descendants of Muhammad through his first cousin and son-in-law, Ali.
Sunnis saw no need for familial succession. They preferred a more representative approach to selecting leaders.
Ali's tomb and the world's largest Muslim cemetery are at Najaf.
Karbala was the site of the slaying of Ali's son, Husayn, in 680.
Supporters of the ruling Ummayad dynasty killed Husayn and his 71 backers, including his family, as he attempted to establish himself as the rightful leader of Islam. His severed head was later displayed in Damascus, Syria, home of the Ummayad regime.
Husayn's martyrdom helped Shi'ites emerge as a separate Muslim sect. Though nine in 10 of the world's Muslims are Sunni, Shi'ites dominate Iran and are a majority in Iraq, where they are ruled by Saddam's minority Sunni regime.
The massacre site is a pilgrimage destination for Shi'ites, or "Followers of Ali," from around the world.
"In the case of Najaf and Karbala, we need to be aware that this is sacred ground for millions of people," Mr. Denny said. "This is for the ages, not just for today."

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