Tens of Thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites Pour into Holy City of Kerbala

Tens of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims are pouring into the holy city of Kerbala 110 km south of Baghdad to commemorate the 40th day after the death of Imam Hussein. Many walk the whole way without either food or water on them. Local Shi'ites prepare meals for the pilgrims on their way, cooking rice and mutton in enormous cauldrons set up right on the roadside.

Ashur, or mourning for Imam Hussein, is the chief religious event in the Shia year, commemorating the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, his brother Abbas and their 70 followers. All are held to have died in battles at Kerbala on October 10, 680 AD. Shi'ites perform extraordinary ceremonies in commemoration of their martyrdom.

Mosques organise readings about Imam Hussein and his followers' suffering. City streets become scenes of highly graphic processions.

The Saddam Hussein regime tended to identify with the Sunni Muslim community while barring Iraq's 60 percent Shi'ite majority from their traditional commemorative processions. The beginning of the Shia year happened just before the war in Iraq. With the war over, Iraqi Shi'ites for the first time in decades have an opportunity to perform their religious rites freely, which centre on Kerbala, site of shrines of Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas.

The commemorative ceremonies that kicked off on Tuesday are meant to continue overnight, culminating on Wednesday, the 40th day after the death of Imam Hussein and his followers. Several million Shi'ites are expected to visit Kerbala these days.

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