| Faithful pray at Imam Hussein mosque in Karbala, 100 km south of Baghdad. (AFP)
Najaf, April 18 (Reuters): Thousands of Iraqi Shias beat their chests with their hands and waved black and green flags today in a passionate celebration of a religious pilgrimage banned for a quarter century under Saddam Hussein.
Men in robes and women draped in flowing black chadors streamed along narrow lanes and through palm tree orchards from towns and villages in southern Iraq to Najaf, from where they will go on to the city of Karbala to mark one of the holiest events in the Shia calendar, on April 23.
The US-led war on Iraq which ended Saddam’s rule opened the way for the pilgrimage.
Villagers have set off days in advance to make sure they reach the two holy cities and visit their domed mosques, coated with intricate mosaics and tiles.
Youths rode bicycles with black flags fluttering from their handlebars. Others went by bus or on foot in large groups, chanting and beating their chests as they crowded the roads to the holy cities.
“Under Saddam Hussein, we would never march to Najaf in groups. We would set off, one or two of us, and keep to the fields, staying far away from the roads to avoid being seen by security forces,” said Ruda Diwan.
“Otherwise we could end up in jail,” said his companion, Qassem Itzab.
The roots of the Shia faith date back to the deaths in 661 AD of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and first leader of the Shias, and that of his son, Imam Hussein, 19 years later — both at the hands of Sunnis. Imam Hussein was killed in a battle in Karbala, 75 km south of Baghdad, and the climax of the pilgrimage — Arbaiin — marks the 40th day after his death.
Hussein is a symbol of martyrdom for pious Shias and his cause has been exploited in the past for political purposes in Iraq, the reason Saddam repressed the pilgrimage.
Shias in Iraq, the majority of the population, were oppressed by the secular Baath party government of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim from north of Baghdad.
Shias speak of being thrown into prison for saying special prayers, or remember relatives who are missing.
Along the road to Najaf, the Hilal family stuck a flag next to the side of the road near their mud house. The cursive Arabic said: “Hussein, the Martyr — Karbala.”
“The Shia faith is at the roots of our culture in the south,” said Jamal Hilal, father of the family. “The north of Iraq was like an independent place of its own, with all the freedom they want.”
The pilgrims marched past, parting every now and then to let through US army vehicles.
They carried the black flag for mourning and the green flag to commemorate the colour of Hussein’s head-dress.
Several men also carried white flags, more commonly associated with surrender.
“This is so the US forces know we are Shias who are coming in peace,” said Itzab.
The US military has said it will take “appropriate” security measures next week when hundreds of thousands of Shias converge on Karbala.
In Najaf, the pilgrims settled on lawns outside the walled mosque compounds and hung up banners. One called on US President George W. Bush to help find missing Iraqi Shias.
Some said that while they were relieved to express their religious feeling freely in large groups, they were not so keen on having the US govern Iraq, in any form.
“We have freedom of religion, but no security and no country,” said Rahek Hilal. “And what can I say about the future'”