| Shias whip themselves with iron chains as an act of redemption for the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Mohammed, during a pilgrimage in Karbala. (AFP)
Karbala (Iraq), April 22 (Reuters): Iraq’s Shia majority, casting off 25 years of repression by Saddam Hussein, celebrated a major pilgrimage in a frenzy of religious fervour today, but many demanded US troops get out of their country.
As the Muslim pilgrimage reached its climax in the holy city of Kerbala, the US official charged with rebuilding war-ravaged Iraq received a warm welcome among northern Kurds, who were among Saddam’s fiercest enemies.
In Baghdad, a Shia anti-American demonstration turned into a celebration when followers of cleric Muhammad al-Fartusi hailed what they said was his release from US detention.
Fartusi’s cheering supporters paraded through the centre of the city. There was no immediate explanation for his detention yesterday, which US officials have yet to confirm.
“We are against colonisation and occupation, we have finished with one oppressive regime and we don’t want another,” said one Fartusi follower, Ahmed Abdel-Zahra, 27.
Hammering their chests and whipping their own backs until they bled, tens of thousands of Shias swarmed through Karbala, 110 km south of Baghdad, on a pilgrimage long suppressed by Saddam.
Shia leaders say a million or more people may flock to Kerbala this week for the pilgrimage — Arbaiin — which honours Imam Hussein, a grandson of Prophet Mohammad, who was killed in the city in 680 AD.
About 60 per cent of Iraq’s 26 million population is Shia.
“Yes, yes to Islam, no to America, no to Israel, no to colonialism and no to occupation,” some pilgrims chanted, in another indication of stormy weather ahead for the post-war administration headed by retired US general Jay Garner.
Garner, who helped the Kurds establish autonomy in northern Iraq 12 years ago after the previous Gulf war, held talks in the city of Dukan with Jalal Talabani, veteran leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Massoud Barzani, head of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Both said they supported creating a federal Iraqi state as envisioned by US President George W. Bush. Garner visited the university in the northeastern city of Sulaimaniya, where crowds of cheering students gave him flowers and showered him with petals. “We trust you in our future,” read one poster in the crowd.
Hiwa Abdullah, 30, a Kurdish university professor teaching Arabic, said: “I am very happy he is here. At least with the Americans we will no longer be afraid of chemicals and genocide.”
Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988, killing about 5,000.
Garner flew in from Baghdad, where he began an assessment yesterday of the impact of the war, which caused thousands of casualties and left many communities without power, water and other essential services.
The US plans to use revenue from sales of Iraqi oil to pay for much of the reconstruction, but some fellow members of the UN Security Council are balking at scrapping sanctions against the country despite the change of guard in Baghdad.
UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said “serious discussions” were under way in the Security Council to get Iraqi oil exports flowing again. But Annan, speaking to reporters in Vienna, declined to speculate on a possible timetable for the lifting of the embargo.
Russia and France insist that resolutions calling for Iraq to be declared free of weapons of mass destruction must be honored, and chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix was due to address the Security Council on the issue.
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko stressed the point. “Only if we receive an official conclusion from the inspectors can the UN Security Council pass a resolution on cancelling sanctions,” he said today.
But China appeared to be leaning toward the US position that sanctions should be lifted quickly. “We have ... advocated the early lifting of sanctions, but the relevant questions should be appropriately resolved within the UN framework,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a news conference in Beijing.
Bush sought to justify his invasion of Iraq on March 20 by accusing Saddam of hiding chemical and biological weapons. No confirmed trace of such weapons has yet been found.
Gunfire erupted today afternoon in central Baghdad and US soldiers were sent to investigate, Reuters correspondent Hassan Hafidh said.
US troops said the shooting had not come from them and suggested turf wars were to blame. “It sounded like AK-47s ... Everybody is fighting for power in the city, wherever we’re not in control,” one soldier said.
At US military headquarters in Qatar, a senior commander said American forces in Iraq had agreed a ceasefire with the People’s Mujahideen, an armed group of Iranian dissidents which had been backed by Saddam.
Art collectors and dealers say they already are getting queries about artifacts looted from Iraq’s museums, and the FBI said that at least one suspected piece has been seized at an American airport.
Thousands of items, some dating back many thousands of years, were taken when US forces overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime. The FBI has begun working with US and international law enforcement agencies, as well as art collectors, auctioneers and experts, to try to recover them.