| A volunteer with the Committee to Free Prisoners sifts through thousands of highly classified documents recording executions, arrests and interrogations under Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad. (AFP)
Karbala, April 23 (Reuters): Huge crowds of ecstatic Shias surged through the holy city of Karbala today, winding up a pilgrimage that signalled to Washington they will be a powerful force in the new Iraq.
The US, apparently alarmed at the possibility of Iraq’s majority Shias taking their lead from neighbouring Iran, said it had warned Tehran against “interfering” with its co-religionists in Iraq.
“We've made clear to Iran that we would oppose any outside interference in Iraq’s road to democracy,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
“Infiltration of agents to destabilise the Shia population would clearly fall into that category.”
But in a fresh sign of tensions on the Iran-Iraq border, an Iranian Opposition militia based in Iraq said it had captured four Iranian soldiers after a clash at the frontier. The People’s Mujahideen, a militia that has been striving to overthrow Iran’s Islamic government for two decades, said Iranian soldiers had attacked near Mandali, about 130 km northeast of Baghdad.
There was no immediate comment from Iranian or US officials. The US said yesterday it had agreed to a ceasefire with People’s Mujahideen forces inside Iraq.
The pilgrimage in the southern city of Karbala, long banned under Saddam Hussein, was marked by slogans denouncing the American presence in Iraq.
Shias, who make up about 60 per cent of Iraq’s population, beat their chests, slashed their scalps with swords and whipped themselves with chains as they marked one of the most sacred festivals of their calendar.
Shia leaders said they expected a million or more people to attend the Arbaiin pilgrimage to the tomb of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed there 13 centuries ago.
It was first time the pilgrimage had been held in nearly three decades, and one of the main leaders of Iraqi Shias said it showed that Iraqis could govern themselves.
Despite their joy at the overthrow of Saddam, a Sunni, many of the pilgrims demanded US troops get out of Iraq, a sentiment echoed today by some residents of Baghdad.
Bush himself appeared unconcerned at the Shia religious mobilisation. “I love the stories about people saying: ‘Isn’t it wonderful to be able to express our religion, the Shia religion, on a pilgrimage...’ It made my day to read that,” Bush told Newsweek.
Retired US general Jay Garner, in charge of reconstruction in Iraq, told a news conference he thought the bulk of Shias were “very glad they are where they are right now”.
Garner was speaking in Arbil in the Kurdish-controlled north, where he is warmly regarded for his role in helping Kurds set up their autonomous zone after the 1991 Gulf war.
Kurdish and US officials announced plans for a commission to resolve disputes between Arabs and thousands of Kurds who were displaced from their homes under Saddam.
“We have this small moment in time where we can make all of Iraq democratic,” Garner, who has been feted in the north by crowds showering him with flower petals, told his hosts.
The Washington Post today quoted Bush administration officials as saying they had focused so much on ousting Saddam that they had not given much thought to how the ensuing power vacuum would be filled.
The officials said the administration had underestimated the strength of the Shia majority and were not in a position to prevent the possible rise of an anti-American, Islamic fundamentalist government.
The ability of Shia clerics to smoothly organise the pilgrimage has underscored their influence and strength in post-war Iraq and suggests they may be better organised than previously thought.
British defence secretary Geoff Hoon, the first Cabinet member from Britain or the US to visit Iraq since US-led forces took over Baghdad on April 9, said Saddam was probably still in the country.
“In the end we don’t know, but it is still our best judgment that he is (in Iraq),” Hoon said on a visit to southern Iraq.
The US delayed until next Monday a second meeting of Iraqi politicians to discuss forming an interim authority, originally planned for Saturday.
A US official said the decision was based solely on forecasts of severe weather in the Baghdad area this weekend, not on political considerations.