- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

The U.S. military expedition into Iraq has skirted ancient sites named in Jewish and Christian scriptures and apparently avoided sacred turf where Shi'ite Muslims had their historic and bloody showdown with rival Sunnis.
Troops that invaded from the south crossed territory called the cradle of civilization and traditionally considered the site of the Garden of Eden. The troops passed by Abraham's birthplace of Ur and the heart of ancient Sumer, whose poetry told of a creation and flood like that in the book of Genesis.
Halfway to Baghdad, they passed the tomb of the founder of Shi'ite Islam and the world's largest Muslim graveyard, and then passed ancient Babylon, now a paltry archaeological site marked mostly by a reconstructed, blue-tiled Babylonian gate.
But most sensitive to Muslims, historians say, is the city of Karbala, site of Shi'ite martyrdom during the 680 clash about who would rule world Islam. The rivalry was between the prophet Muhammad's family and the caliph in Syria, who was backed by a cadre of the prophet's followers.
At Karbala, the Muslim caliph massacred the prophet's Muslim nephew, but the attack still is viewed as a sin by "unbelievers," said Sulayman Nyang, a Howard University historian of Islam.
"That [memory] is one reason the [coalition] forces have apparently bypassed Karbala," Mr. Nyang said. "You don't want to re-create any mythical revivification of that martyrdom of the past."
He said that even if the coalition avoids all conflict in Karbala, or two other Shi'ite shrines nearby, a Shi'ite rebellion against the oppressive regime may arise on its own from that "historically sacred territory."
The Sunni-backed regime has persecuted Shi'ites since the founding of Iraq in 1932, but Mr. Nyang said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would even use conflict about Shi'ite holy sites to arouse world Islam against the coalition forces.
"We don't want to play into his hands. Also, you don't want to prompt any emotionalism among the Hezbollah in Lebanon," he added, referring to a Shi'ite terrorist group.
In northern Iraq, meanwhile, coalition forces near Mosul worked around the ancient remains of Nineveh, where the prophet Jonah had preached, pointing to a parallel concern to preserve the nation's archaeological remains.
"The military have taken some precautions to find out where these sites are and to avoid them as possible," said Jack Meinhardt, editor of Archaeology Odyssey magazine. "I know they have contacted archaeologists."
For a century, Iraq was an archaeologist's dream, but much of the work and many of the sites have lain idle and were pilfered after the 1991 Gulf war, experts say.
"This is a cradle of civilization and the origin of some of the biblical traditions," Mr. Meinhardt said. "The region is one of the world's richest, if not the richest, sites of archaeological remains."
The artifacts include a city wall in Nineveh, early Islamic architecture elsewhere in Iraq and shrines to the founders of Shi'ite Islam, which accounts for 10 percent of the world's Muslims.
Several historic mosques still stand, and Eastern Orthodox and Catholic congregations are active in Baghdad, which was a kind of ancient planned city.
It also has the tomb of one of the founders of Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam.
After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, the struggle for leadership of Islam developed between a council of followers, who gave rise to the caliph, and the blood relatives of the prophet who backed his son-in-law, Ali.
The succession of caliphs founded Sunni Islam, which encompasses the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, and based their early Omayyad dynasty in Syria between 661 and 750.
They built the Dome of the Rock mosque, for example, in what is now Old Jerusalem.
Early in the Omayyad dynasty, Ali and his family were based in Najaf, now in modern Iraq, and in 680 his son, Husayn, journeyed to Damascus, Syria, to claim his Muslim leadership. Just outside Najaf, at Karbala, the caliph's forces massacred Husayn's family and displayed his severed head in Damascus.
Since then, the Shi'ites which means "followers of Ali" have lionized martyrdom. They recall the massacre each year and consider Karbala second only to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in sacredness.
Najaf is the site of Ali's tomb and the world's largest Muslim cemetery.

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