KARBALA, Iraq - The pilgrims have been walking for days, some of them, past the palm groves and abandoned battlefields and dusty farms. In a clamor of clapping hands and booming prayer, they have traced the old paths to this sacred city.
They have come by foot, limping and jogging along the roads from Baghdad, Mosul and Najaf. A 13-year-old boy dutifully pushed his crippled brother in a wheelchair. And once in Karbala, some men have crawled on bloodied knees.
This is the first time in decades that Iraq's Shiites have been free to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Along the pilgrimage to his tomb, religious fervor has become entwined with political aspiration. The secular regime that repressed the Shiites has fallen; the procession is ripe with the spirit of possibility.
"Sincerely, I'm telling you, I feel free," said Anad Khishaish, 62, who marched south about 50 miles from Baghdad on swollen feet. "For many years we were scared, and we had Saddam's people chasing us."
Saddam Hussein abhorred this ritual, regarding it as a potentially destabilizing show of muscle by the Shiites, a majority group of about 16 million people in a nation run by his Sunni-dominated Baath Party.
Year after year, as Saddam Hussein stifled the Shiites, they sought to perform the rites in secret. Pilgrims crept along back roads, slipped into secret ceremonies, hid from government spies. Meanwhile, soldiers flooded the roads to choke Karbala shut. Worshipers were arrested, tortured and killed.
"We were so afraid, we buried the dead in our houses," said Abu Naseer Nihmeh, 32 a pilgrim who wandered the route south from Baghdad yesterday. "If our people were wounded, we treated them in secret."
The days of furtive worship are over. Shiites have been marching in the streets of Baghdad for days in anticipation of their pilgrimage, and songs echoed over the pastures yesterday on the way to Karbala.
When the time came for daily prayer, the pilgrims spread their rugs in the road and bent their heads to the earth. Before a cornfield, a holy man sang from the bed of a pickup truck. Soft rains cooled their backs, and the sky stood pearly and cool. On reaching the green waters of the Euphrates, worshipers sat on the banks and soaked their feet.
Stray cluster bombs, blasted craters and burned-out cars framed the road, but nobody seemed to mind. By late afternoon yesterday, the road from Baghdad was clogged with an impenetrable screen of bodies.
"The people are coming in such numbers because they feel liberated," said Hamze Tarish, who crawled through Karbala to the shrine on swollen knees. "Look at me - I'm ready to sacrifice myself, even."
He would soon have the chance to pray. Today's ritual will be a melange of prayer and punishment of the flesh. Some Shiites will whip themselves and pierce their skin in memory of Hussein, who was killed in the 7th century. Every year, the anniversary of his death is marked 40 days of mourning, a rowful season that will culminate this year in a final, communal frenzy at his tomb in Karbala.
A man who rallied his tiny force and charged into an impossible fight against a daunting foe, Hussein is fixed in Shiite doctrine as a symbol of martyrdom and defiance, freedom and suicidal daring. He was the engineer of revolution, a man who set out knowing he was bound for disaster.
His saucer-eyed portrait looms large this week, pasted on car windshields and hoisted in thick frames. But there are also newer martyrs: Grainy, black-and-white photographs of Shiite holy men assassinated by the Baath party have adorned the procession.
"We were killed by Saddam Hussein," said Ali al Baghdadi, a mosque leader from Baghdad who was said he was arrested and tortured in 1995.
Secret police took his brother away in 1993, he said, and "if any of us tried to speak, we'd be killed or taken from the house."
This week, the road to Karbala has been virtually unsupervised. The only sort of Iraqi soldiers in view were a gaggle of followers of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, who, under the watchful eye of U.S. soldiers, hopped along with the music and waved eagerly at the passing crowds.
Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.