- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims clambered aboard buses or began trekking homeward yesterday at the end of Ashoura, a 10-day ritual to cleanse the spirit and scourge the body in honor of their founding saint.

Despite two days of fighting that killed at least 72 persons farther south and a series of attacks north of Baghdad, the high holy days in Karbala passed absent the slaughter of pilgrims witnessed in the years since the U.S.-led invasion nearly half a decade ago.

Fearing a spectacular attack on the masses of self-flagellating faithful who marched on the shrines in Karbala, Iraqi authorities flooded the city with 30,000 police and soldiers. Soviet-made tanks guarded approach roads.

A relatively uneventful passage of Ashoura had been seen by U.S. and Iraqi officials as a rigorous test of the decline in violence in the country since Washington sent in 30,000 additional troops last year and many Sunni insurgents suddenly joined American forces in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq.

But militants did assault gatherings of Ashoura worshippers elsewhere.

A rocket slammed into a busy market in the northern city of Tal Afar yesterday, killing at least seven persons who had completed the ritual and gathered there afterward, according to Najim Abdullah, the mayor.

And two bombs hidden under trash blasted an Ashoura procession in Kirkuk, killing at least two persons, police said.

And earlier last week 20 persons were killed in two suicide bombings against groups assembled for Ashoura in Diyala province, the still-violent and religiously mixed territory north of Baghdad.

But in Karbala, provincial Gov. Aqil al-Khazali said 2 million Ashoura pilgrims passed peacefully through the city, home to the golden-domed mosques of Imam Hussein and his half-brother, Imam Abbas.

The festival, largely banned by Saddam Hussein and his minority-Sunni Muslim regime, recalls the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in a seventh-century battle near Karbala. The combat defined the split between Islam’s Sunni and Shi’ite sects.

Men wearing black or white robes danced in circles and chanted as they swayed in unison. They pounded their chests, slashed their heads and beat their bloodied foreheads with the flat sides of swords and knives.

In Basra and Nasiriyah, south of Karbala, authorities put the final death toll at 72 when fighting ended yesterday after security forces stormed a mosque and ousted holdout members of the Soldiers of Heaven sect.

The militants seek to invoke chaos as a means of inspiring the return of the so-called “Hidden Imam” — also known as the Mahdi — a descendant of Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the ninth century. Shi’ites believe he will return one day to bring justice to the world.

Basra police chief Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf said at least 44 persons were killed in Iraq’s second-largest city — seven officers, two civilians and 35 gunmen — while dozens more were wounded and 100 gunmen were arrested.

Aziz Khazim Alwan, the governor of Dhi Qar, of which Nasiriyah is the capital, said at least 28 persons were killed in that city, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad. He said a standoff ended when Iraqi security forces stormed a mosque sheltering followers of the group, discovering explosives and yellow headbands signifying allegiance to the sect.

While there was no catastrophic attack during Ashoura, Sunni and Shi’ite militants kept up the steady, although diminished, level of violence yesterday in regions to the north. Bombs, suicide assaults, rockets and death-squad killings left behind the corpses of at least 21 more Iraqis, including those killed in Kirkuk and Tal Afar.

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