Shiites mark Ashoura by remembering destruction of one of their holiest shrines

Tens of thousands of Shiites Muslims came Tuesday to this holy city, the site of a battle where the Prophet Muhammad's grandson was killed, beating their chest and heads to mark his death. Others slashed their heads and beat their bloodied foreheads with the flat sides of swords and knives.

The ceremonies marking the feast of Ashoura were held under tight security. The entire city was sealed off and pilgrims were searched at numerous checkpoints.All vehicles including bicycles were banned.

Tuesday marked the climax of the 10 day commemorations marking the death of Imam Hussein who was killed in 680 A.D. on the plains of Karbala by soldiers of the Caliph Yazid. Shiites believe Imam Hussein and 73 male followers mounted a heroic defense against Yazid's much superior force.

Residents of the city distributed harissa, a dish made from wheat and lamb meat, juice, tea and water to visitors passing by. The vast majority of people taking part in the ceremony were Iraqis but there were also fellow Shiites from Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Some worshippers carried black, red and green flags with statements praising Imam Hussein. One of them, which was said be made by Indian independence leader Mohandas Ghandi, read: "I learned from Hussein to be repressed and victorious."

Mohammed Salih, 37, a civil servant who came from Baghdad said Imam Hussein "represents the victory of the blood on sword."

Rahim Hussein, a 34-year-old laborer from Baghdad, who was dressed in black from head to toe, said "I came to die in this holy day. We are not afraid from the terrorists wherever they are. Let them come. I came to win the martyrdom."

This year's events took place without attacks in Karbala thanks to the heavy security from Iraqi and U.S. forces. Attacks on Shiite worshippers in other parts of Iraq left at least 36 people dead and dozens wounded.

Karbala's provincial governor, Akeel al-Khazaali, told The Associated Press that more that 1.5 million people took part in the ceremony in his city.

Al-Khazaali said due to bad weather, U.S. helicopters were not able to fly over to protect the pilgrims but that unmanned U.S. surveillance aircraft flew over the area to guard against possible attacks.

He added that security forces Monday detained an Iraqi citizen who was wearing an explosive belt adding that he was detained far from Karbala. "The situation is under control," he said.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Shiites regained the right to express their beliefs freely. Since then annual Ashoura commemorations have drawn huge crowds despite the threat of attack by Sunni extremists.

The worst attack on Shiite worshippers during Ashoura occurred three years ago when suicide bombers, roadside bombs and mortar barrages struck shrines in Karbala and Baghdad, killing at least 181 people.

Since then, very tight security measures were taken around Shiite shrines around the country and in Ashoura thousands of Iraqi troops and policemen impose a cordon around Karbala where every person going in is searched to prevent any possible suicide attack.

"Even if the terrorist tear us to pieces, we will not stop coming to visit Imam Hussein," said Abbas Karim, 27, a laborer from the southern city of Nasiriyah.

Shiites who visited Karbala on Tuesday were reminded in another attack on the sect in Iraq, reports AP.

At the entrance of the gold domed Imam Hussein shrine a large banner with a picture of the destroyed holy Shrine in the central Iraqi city of Samarra read: "We will not forget the catastrophe."

The Feb. 22, bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra by suspected al-Qaida members led to retaliatory attacks by Shiites against Sunni mosques and clerics.

The Samarra attack was a turning point in the escalation of sectarian killings that has left thousands Sunnis and Shiites dead and plunged the nation into civil conflict.

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