Religious ceremonies: more than 1 million Iraqi Shiites beat selves

More than one million Iraqis marched and beat themselves Thursday in blood-soaked processions through this holy city and other Shiite centers around the country to mourn the 7th century death of their revered martyr, Imam Hussein. Swept by a thick yellow sand storm, mass processions choked Karbala's wide streets as more than 8,000 security forces and additional militiamen prevented terrorist attacks that have rocked Ashoura ceremonies over the past two years, killing more than 230 people.

Karbala police chief Brig. Razzaq Abid Ali al-Taei said up to 2 million people either marched in drum banging and flag waving parades or watched on as the teeming crowd moved by. "The ceremony has ended with no security violations, except for one rocket being launched at noon from an area west of Karbala and fell in a field 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the east," al-Taei. "No one was hurt and some Iraqi suspects were arrested."

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims began several days ago descending on Karbala, where Hussein is believed buried, for ceremonies marking Ashoura, the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic lunar calendar.

The United States military has been using unmanned, unarmed aerial drones to provide an overhead view of processions. Violence continued elsewhere in Iraq as gunmen assassinated a police lieutenant colonel in the turbulent city of Ramadi, police said. The U.S. military said Thursday that a suicide car bomber attacked a U.S.-Iraqi checkpoint Wednesday near the Syrian border, killing five Iraqis and injuring three people, including a U.S. Marine.

The U.S. command said a suicide car bomber attacked a U.S.-Iraqi checkpoint about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Syrian border the day before, killing five Iraqis and injuring three others, including an American Marine. The dead included three Iraqi civilians and two Iraqi soldiers.

Also Thursday, Iraq's deputy justice minister said U.S. forces are expected to release about 450 male Iraqi detainees next week. None of the four or five women believed to be in custody are expected to be freed next Thursday, Busho Ibrahim Ali told The Associated Press.

The kidnappers of American journalist Jill Carroll, who was abducted Jan. 7, have demanded the release of all female detainees or else they would kill their captive. No sign has been seen of Carroll since video footage of her pleading for her release appeared Jan. 30 on Al-Jazeera TV.

In Karbala, about 20,000 men wearing white shrouds and waving swords above their heads began marching around 2 a.m. between the gold-domed Imam Hussein shrine and another dedicated to his brother, Abbas, less than a mile away.

Following dawn prayers, about 8,000 people, dressed in black as a sign of mourning and including children as young as age 8, marched between the two shrines to the deep beat of bass drums. Some slapped chains across their backs until their clothes were soaked with blood, while others beat their heads with the flat side of long swords and knives until blood ran freely in a ritual of grief that was banned under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Some sliced their foreheads with the edge of a sword in a practice known as "al-Tatbeer" _ meaning "sword" in Arabic and beat themselves while chanting "Haider, Haider," a name by which Hussein's father, Ali, is also known. "Although it is a sad day, I am very happy because I took part in these head-beating processions," said 10-year-old Haider Abbas Salim, whose face was covered in blood. "Imam Hussein's martyrdom teaches us manhood and that we shouldn't fear anything."

Many Iraqis cooked throughout the night: pilgrims attending the ceremonies are given meals of rice and thick soup laden with meat and chick peas. Hussein, the grandson of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, was massacred along with about 70 followers by an army of Umayyads, their rivals for leadership of the Muslim community, during a 680 A.D. battle in Karbala. Hussein's death cemented the split in Islam between Shiites and Sunni Muslims.

The ceremonies come amid heightened sectarian tensions in Iraq between Shiites and Sunni Arabs and a campaign of reprisal kidnappings and killings. The U.S. is backing efforts to form a new unity government comprising Iraq's Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, reports the AP.


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