05 March, 2008

Arbaeen in Iraq

In preparation for an upcoming interview with a military officer in Iraq, I went back through the last 10 days' worth of news articles on Yahoo and found some real gems...

The big deal in central/southern Iraq during the end of February and beginning of March was the Shiite festival of Arbaeen (also Arba'een or Arbain). Depending on whom you ask, an estimated six to nine million religious pilgrims descended on Karbala to celebrate the end of 40 days of mourning for the death of a 7th-century Imam.

Unlike past years, the only significant violence associated with the pilgrimage occurred on the path from Baghdad to Karbala, with a suicide bomber attacking a rest stop in Iskandiriyah. But the best thing about the success of the entire event was the attitude demonstrated by the pilgrims. Of course, these sorts of things were deeply buried in media reports:

Fadel al-Awadi, 49, a bureaucrat from the central city of Nasiriyah, said he has attended Arbaeen ever since Saddam's ouster. "We come every year to continue the revolution started by Imam Hussein," he told AFP.

"I had come only once under Saddam, but was arrested by the police," added Jawad al-Mussawi, a sheikh from Basra.

There was such a surge in number of pilgrims compared to the past that the cities were overwhelmed. And in another good sign, locals took the opportunity to demand more of their government--instead of worries about security, the challenges and complaints were quite mundane:

Men, women and children crammed into any vehicle possible -- buses, vans, even cargo trucks -- for the ride home. Some men caught a ride by lying on the spare wheel hanging below the bodies of 18-wheeler trucks.

"The record number of pilgrims should be a sign for the government to pay attention to the city and improve the municipal services such as water and electricity," Khazali said. [snip]

"Every year after the Arbaeen ceremony we take tremendous efforts to clean the city of tonnes of rubbish," he said. "If the infrastructure remains the same we will be unable to receive such a huge number of pilgrims next year."

Despite the relative peace and safety of the area, it took a great deal of courage to make the trip:

Businessman Mubarak Ali, 52, said he had feared the worst when he left his home in Bahrain 30 days ago to attend.

"I said goodbye to all my close friends and relatives. The news bulletins we watch every day gives us the impression that everybody who visits Iraq will not come back alive," he said, saying he was astonished at the tight security.

"I am calling all my friends across Gulf countries to visit and see a new Iraq."

At least the "bulletins" are consistent--that last bit was from Reuters, at the very end of the report and under the headline, "Millions defy bombs to attend Iraqi Shi'ite Ritual."

Update: Thought this one was interesting, too...