For Shiites, a day of mourning, a time of hope

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- As Shiite Arabs observe the important holiday of Ashura, they stand at a critical juncture, one marked both by potential peril and once-unimaginable opportunity for their sect, long considered second-class citizens in the Sunni-dominated Middle East.

Ashura, the 10-day religious festival that culminates today and commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hossein in the seventh century, has leaped in importance in the Arab world since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni regime in 2003.


"Ashura is the marquee event of Shiism," said Vali Nasr, a scholar at the Naval Postgraduate University in Monterey, Calif., and author of The Shia Revival.

Near the shrine of Imam Hossein in Karbala, where he was felled in a battle in A.D. 680 that hardened the rift between Islam's two major sects, boys as young as 7 marched yesterday. Blood splattered on the streets around the shrine housing the remains of Hossein and his brother, Abbas, as young men whipped their backs raw and gashed their heads with swords.


Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Iraq, neighboring Iran and other countries braved Iraq's violence-plagued roads for the annual observance.

"I do this out of my love for Imam Hossein," said Hossein Mohammad Ali, a 16-year-old high school student ritually beating himself with a chain during a procession in Karbala. "I want to feel the pain he was feeling."

Shiites believe Hossein and his descendants were robbed of their birthright in a succession dispute that defines the continuing Middle East conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. The story of Hossein is widely interpreted by Shiites as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny and oppression. It continues to drive Shiite hopes and fears.

For centuries, Shiites were considered an underclass in Arab countries, oppressed by more powerful and wealthy Sunni leaders, even where Shiites constituted a majority, as in Iraq. The U.S.-led invasion ousted Hussein's oppressive Sunni-led government, an event that Abdul Aziz Hakim, leader of Iraq's main Shiite political coalition, calls the "Ashura Revolution."

In the stronghold of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, young men handed out sweets to passers-by. Old men and women wiped away tears as they mourned Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed in battle by a Sunni tribal leader named Yazid.

"For a very long time, Shiites in Lebanon were unjustly treated. They were marginalized," said Hossein Jouni, 34. "Today, Shiites are stronger than ever against any external enemy."

The emergence of Shiite Arabs has upset the centuries-old balance of power in the region and has been met with violence.

Sunni extremists bombed a Shiite shrine in February, a tipping point in Iraq's sectarian conflict. Jordan's King Abdullah II has warned of an emerging Shiite crescent stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. And as he stood at the gallows, Hussein cursed his executioners as "Persians."


Borzou Daragahi and Raed el-Rafei write for the Los Angeles Times.