Najaf, April 30 (Reuters): Hundreds of thousands of Shias swarmed on the Iraqi holy city of Najaf today to mark the death of the Prophet Mohammad, freely making the pilgrimage for the first time in decades.
The pilgrimage to the tomb of Imam Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Mohammad, was the second show of Shia might in a week and highlighted the country’s newfound religious freedom since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Last week, hundreds of thousands of Shias made the pilgrimage to the nearby southern city of Kerbala in a fervent display — beating their chests, slashing their scalps with swords and whipping themselves with chains.
In contrast to the noisy procession to Karbala, today’s pilgrimage in Najaf, 160 km south of Baghdad, was a much tamer affair. Crowds of men, wearing headbands proclaiming loyalty to Imam Ali and his son Imam Hussein, slapped their chests and chanted. One man climbed on the shoulders of his companions, gesturing to worshippers in the streets to follow him in prayers. But others marked the occasion by silently standing around the mosque, their hands raised to the sky.
“We came by foot for two days from Karbala to Najaf,” said Um Zahra, dressed in the enveloping black dress of a religious Shia.
“In previous years the regime did not allow us to make the pilgrimage in such large numbers,” said Um Zahra.