Baghdad (AsiaNews) – The first pilgrims have arrived in the Holy City of Karbala, south of Baghdad, to celebrate Āshūrā, one of the key moments in the Shia religious calendar. Commemorations, which had banned under Saddam, honour the death of imam Husayn, but in the last few years they have been marked by very bloody attacks against Shiites. This year’s ritual pilgrimage to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the mosque with the golden dome, also coincides with a changing political scenario as radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers go back to parliament after a two-month boycott.
Shia pilgrims arrive in Karbala on foot or by bus, carrying black banners as a sign of mourning for the death of Husayn, Muhammad’s grandson.
They come from neighbouring provinces in central and southern Iraq but also from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Local residents are ready to welcome them by setting up tikyas, square wooden kiosks draped in black, where the weary pilgrims can stop to eat and drink before setting off again.
As they make their way through the city to the centre, believers have already formed processions of wailing and self-flagellating pilgrims.
At the same time loudspeakers retell the story of the 680 AD battle against the soldiers of the Umayyad (Sunni) caliph Yazid that saw Husayn killed.
This year’s Āshūrā, which began on January 21 for ten days, will end on the 30 when some three million pilgrims are expected to gather in and near the mosque with the gold dome where Husayn ibn Ali, whom Shiites consider the true successor of Muhammad, is buried.
Increasingly isolated in the Shia coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr has decided to end his boycott of the Iraqi government. Lawmakers loyal to him had walked out of the National Assembly on November 29 in protest against the meeting between al-Maliki and President Bush. The Sadrists want the US to pull out quickly.
The six ministers and 30 parliamentarians from the radical leader’s party ended their boycott having received assurances from the government that there would be “discussion on a timetable for US troop withdrawal from the country”.
In fact Washington convinced al-Maliki to stop protecting al-Sadr’s militias, the “Mehdi army”, by showing that it is operating death squads responsible for sectarian violence in a Baghdad.
For some analysts, al-Sadr had no option but to go back to parliament to avoid a possible US military offensive or total isolation.
Only yesterday a US military spokesperson announced that Iraqi and coalition forces had rounded up more than 600 members of al-Sadr's militia over a month and half period, including 16 "high level" militia leaders.