Karbala, 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, is usually no more than a 90-minute drive through an increasingly green landscape of date palms, eucalyptus trees and reeds watered by the nearby Euphrates. But for most of a week this past October, the journey turned into a five-hour crawl. Highways leading to Karbala were choked by an enormous mass of humanity heading toward the city to celebrate the birth of the 12th Imam, a redeemer born more than a thousand years ago who disappeared as a child and, so these travelers believe, will one day return to overthrow all tyrants. Many walked all the way from Baghdad—crowds had been streaming out of the city since midweek—while others had set out days earlier from towns as far away as Nasiriyah, in the deep south, and Kirkuk, 200 miles north of Baghdad.
Despite dust and 90-degree heat, the pilgrims, many of them barefoot, kept up an urgent pace. The flags they carried— mostly bright green, but also red, yellow, pink—made brilliant splashes of color in the flat landscape, contrasting with the all-enveloping black abayas of the women. They marched in separate groups, parties of friends or neighbors, until they drew close to their destination and coalesced into one dense column. Every so often a group would break into a rhythmic chant, invoking the names of the martyr-saints that inspire their faith. “We are Shia,” the men roared in unison, stabbing their fists in the air. “We are the sons of Imam Hussein, and the name of Ali is always on our tongues.” Shiites or Shia—the terms are used interchangeably and both mean “partisans”—form one of the two great branches of Islam. About 150 million Shiites are spread around the world, most of them in Iran, Iraq, India and Pakistan. While the Sunni branch makes up the greater part of the global Muslim population of more than a billion, Shiites form the majority in Iraq—as many as 15 million out of a population of 24 million. Nonetheless, Shiites have never held power in Iraq nor fully participated in its government, and at times have been brutally repressed.
The future role of the Shiites is one of the most important issues facing Iraq. Now that their greatest oppressor, Saddam Hussein, is gone, they will no longer tolerate second-class status. At the same time, others in Iraq and elsewhere, including many in the United States, fear that a Shiite-dominated government might impose an Iranian-style fundamentalist Islamic regime. If a democratic Iraq is to emerge from the ruins bequeathed by Saddam Hussein, both the hopes of the Shiites and the fears of non-Shiites will somehow have to be accommodated.
Iraqi Shiites are a diverse group. Some are educated and middle class, but most are poor Arabs living in rural southern Iraq or Baghdad’s slums (there are significant communities among the non-Arab Kurdish and Turkmen peoples of the north as well). They range from the deeply religious to the wholly secular. Their common bond is a memory of discrimination, whether in the form of the mass executions common during the reign of Saddam Hussein or simply in their exclusion from power throughout Iraq’s history.
Today, the Shiites are confident that those days ended with the fall of Saddam Hussein. “Everything is changing,” Adil Abdul Mehdi, a leader of a powerful Shiite party, told me cheerfully in Baghdad, as we sped across town in a convoy of SUVs, surrounded by armed bodyguards. “For too long the Shia have been a majority that acted like a minority. They have to raise their heads. They have a right to represent Iraq.”
Now, on the road to Karbala, I was watching the Shiites assert one of those rights: the freedom to celebrate one of their great religious festivals. Fifteenth Shaban, as the festival is called, is the date in the Muslim calendar (October 11 this year) that marks the birthday of the 12th Imam. By the evening of the festival, well over a million people were crowded onto the vast plaza surrounding the two colossal shrines crowned with golden domes and minarets that dominate the center of the city.
Karbala is a holy place for Shiites because of the two men buried in those shrines. Half brothers, they died in a battle here long ago, a battle that grew out of a ferocious struggle to lead Islam after the death of the prophet Muhammad in a.d. 632. The Shiite faith originated with those Muslims who thought that the wrong side—that led by Abu Bakr, fatherin- law of the prophet Muhammad—won, unjustly usurping Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. (Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr was the rightful heir.) Ali did finally become caliph in 656 but was assassinated five years later and buried in nearby Najaf. Shiites regard Ali’s brief reign as the last period of legitimate and just rule on earth.
Nineteen years after Ali’s death, his second son, Hussein, who had been living without evident political ambition in Medina, responded to a call from the people of Kufa, then chafing under the harsh rule of a Sunni caliph, Yazid, and set out across the desert to lead them in rebellion. It is a fundamental tenet of Shiism that Hussein’s motivation was not power lust but revulsion at Yazid’s tyrannical rule. As one cleric in a theological school in Najaf assured me, “When Imam Hussein left Medina, he said, ‘I’m not going to win a fortune or a throne. I am going out for justice,’ even though he knew he was going to be sacrificed.” Indeed, many believe that Hussein knew before he left Medina that his supporters had been rounded up and that his cause was doomed. Intercepted by the caliph’s army on the plain of Karbala after a long journey across the desert, Hussein and his band of 72 family members and followers refused to surrender, digging a ditch behind them to preclude retreat. The saga cherished by Iraqi Shiites recounts how, in the midst of battle, Hussein’s warrior half brother Abbas heard the women and children crying from thirst. Fighting his way to a nearby stream to fetch water, he was cut down. Hussein, fighting on a few hundred yards away, was the last to die, sword in one hand, Koran in the other.
This religious schism between Sunnis and Shiites is not, however, mutually antagonistic in the manner of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or Christians and Muslims in Beirut. “My mother is Sunni, my father Shia,” says Baghdad native Fareer Yassin. “One third of the Muslims in my high- school graduating class were from mixed Sunni Shia marriages, and that was typical of Baghdad.” I have heard similar stories from many Iraqis, who also point out that direct clashes between the two communities are extremely rare and that discrimination against the Shiites has inevitably been orchestrated by rulers—whether kings or Saddam Hussein— for political, not religious reasons.
For the masses of faithful pouring into Karbala for the festival this past October, the ancient battle at this site might well have happened yesterday. Strolling late in the warm evening through the vast crowd around the shrines of Hussein and Abbas, I heard constant reaffirmations of support for the long dead heroes. “See the love that people have for Imam Hussein,” said my guide, Ala’a Baqir, a pharmacist influential in local affairs. “He is for justice, and people think we are losing that in our own time. We are ready to fight at any time for Imam Hussein.”