NAJAF and KARBALA – The Shi’ite armies are on the move. They have no tanks, no stealth bombers, no night vision devices. Their sole weapon of mass persuasion is the power of the word – deep religious fervor inscribed in green, black and red flags waved under the sandy winds of Mesopotamia. But the political weight that they are about to display this Tuesday in Karbala is something unheard and unseen in centuries of history of “the land between the rivers.”

Every year, a pilgrimage celebrates the 40th day of the death by decapitation of Imam Hussein, the son of the first Imam Ali (the Prophet Mohammed’s brother-in-law), at the battle of Karbala, in the year 680 AD, which is the founding event of Shi’ism.

But the pilgrimage this year is unlike any other. At the office of the late Great Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr in central Najaf, top cleric Abbas Elroubaei, who is also a painter, confides with a smile, “It took only three words.” These – pronounced by the all-powerful al-Hawza council of 15 to 20 supreme Shi’ite religious authorities in Iraq – were simple: “Go to Karbala.”

As early as Saturday morning, hundreds of thousands were already on the road, literally walking to their destination in central Iraq and converging on Imam Hussein’s shrine, with its cupola and minarets covered with gold. Elroubaei expects no less than 7 million people in Karbala: “And this with just one phrase. Can you imagine the power of 7 million?”

Karbala (an Aramaic name) is the second Shi’ite holy place after Najaf (Najaf is Islam’s fourth holiest city, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). Karbala is so holy that many pilgrims carry soil from it to pray in their cities, be they in Iran or Pakistan. Many others sleep with little round tablets under their pillows (sold for less than 50 US cents) made from the earth of Karbala. A pilgrimage to Karbala can be more important to many Shi’ites than the hajj to Mecca and Medina. This is the ultimate Holy Land, sanctified by the blood of martyrs. The color combination of flags waved by the pilgrims also carries deep religious meaning. The red flag symbolizes Abbas, Hussein’s half-brother (venerated because he fought alongside Hussein in Karbala), and also the blood of Hussein. The black flag symbolizes Hussein, and also sadness. The green flag symbolizes Imam Ali, and is also the color of Islam.

“Prince” (as he is affectionately referred to) Hussein’s mosque in Karbala is encircled by a vast courtyard and an ornate wall with exquisite blue mosaics with verses of the Holy Koran. Hussein’s tomb is inside a silver-embroidered rectangle. Three hundred meters away from Hussein’s shrine, on the other side of a huge square, is the also golden-domed shrine of Abbas. Since Saturday, the square has been turned into an immense religious bazaar – a congregation of silent widows, street orphans, raucous families, opportunists selling battered cassettes of Koranic texts, impromptu preachers, and the odd coffin paraded over heads and shoulders. The pilgrims on the move – on the Baghdad-Najaf expressway or on the dusty two-lane road between Najaf and Karbala – are an extraordinary sight, mingling with the rumbling serpent of American convoys, past charred T-72 tanks and “desecrated” Saddam Hussein murals that would have pleased Andy Warhol. Elderly Shi’ite women all in black carry plastic vases on their heads. Most men just carry a flag, chanting all the time, a keffiah (scarf) around the waist. Some, at the sight of a foreigner, immediately shout “No Saddam, no Amrika.” Huge photos of Hussein, looking like a dashing medieval warrior-prince, decorate the entrances of tents set up in the desert offering tea, a few cushions and the latest tribal gossip.

Anybody thinking that a giant political rally – in a Western sense – will take place in Karbala is bound to be disappointed. The political statement is the gathering itself of Shi’ites in such staggering numbers. The pilgrims tell us how it is through their banners – like “I’m the one that Allah loves” – or through their words: “Everyone in Karbala would wish to be a martyr in Paradise with Ali and Hussein.” What will happen, according to top clerics, is a giant concert of wailing, some flagellation and even some voluntary amputations – prohibited during the whole Saddam era: these are instruments for the Shi’ites to repent for not helping Hussein in his battle against the Ummayad Caliphate almost 14 centuries ago. There’s nothing specifically programmed regarding the war, said a top cleric: “People, rather, are interested in how to work with God: have a good life, help people, have children, money and follow the right way.”

For Shi’ites, Islam should have been led by the Holy Prophet Mohammed’s descendants through Ali’s lineage, and not by the Caliphs. The battle of Karbala was a larger-than-life event that not only defined the Sunni-Shi’ite split inside Islam, but also defined the Shi’ite view of the world as a blend of protest and martyrdom: a radical activism. That’s why the battle of Karbala is as vivid in the Shi’ite imagination today as if it had just taken place.

It’s startling to compare Sunni and Shi’ite attitudes in the highly-charged atmosphere of post-Saddam Iraq. Sunnis – apart from the giant street protest after jumma (Friday) prayers at the Abu Hanifah mosque in Baghdad on Friday – have faded into the background, while Shi’ite clerics have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for unity. They seem to be united on at least one rallying cry, heard at the Abu Hanifah demonstration and also on the road to Karbala: >I>La Suniya, La Shieya, Wahda Wahda Islamiya (No Sunni or Shi’ite, only one Islam). But another battle cry – also vocally imprinted by Sunni and Shi’ite alike, is infinitely more problematic: La ilaha ila Allah, America Aduallah (There is no God but Allah, and America is His enemy).

Right now, Najaf is all but deserted: everybody went or is on the road to Karbala. An April 13 proclamation by the powerful al-Hawza – which could be defined as the high office of Shi’ite religious authorities – affixed on the meticulously decorated tiles of the Imam Ali shrine – gives detailed instructions to Najaf’s citizens. Some crucial points: there is no difference between Sunni and Shi’ite; everyone should go to the mosque; al-Hawza will take care of managing health problems. Al-Hawza has made numerous recommendations: “Don’t listen to anyone outside Iraqi or from the occupying force.” “Keep your eyes open,” “Save your possessions from looting,” “Help people with food and medicine,” “Don’t do anything against anybody like during the Saddam Hussein government,” “Everyone must respect any religion” and “Everybody should go back to work.”

In the streets, a huge crowd immediately congregates around any foreign visitor: “Tell the world we have no water, no electricity, no gas, very little food, no money, no medicine.” Very few shops are open in the souk (market) corridor that leads to the Imam Ali shrine. And there’s the matter of the assassination of a very prominent figure to be solved.

Last year, the imam of Najaf, Dr. Haider Alkelydar, granted a long interview to this correspondent, talking about Sunni-Shi’ite unity and revealing among other things that the city was a training camp for the Palestine Liberation Army. On April 12, with the Americans already in town, Haider was killed. According to Zaki Elnouthfar, a prominent Najafi, “The imam was killed by the Mukhabarat” [the Iraq secret service], by people “who were not from Najaf, who knifed his body 100 times.” Elnouthfar, whose story is corroborated by many Najafis, swears “everybody here loved Dr. Haider.”

According to the Najaf street version, the killing fit the Mukhabarat style. Residents say that Haider left the Imam Ali shrine and was walking in Thausat al-Ashrin street with two bodyguards when he was attacked. Residents say that Haider had enough time to “try to call the Americans on his satphone,” apparently with no success.

This version of events is totally contradicted by Abbas Elroubaei of the Ayatollah al-Sadr’s office: “There was a relationship between Haider and Saddam Hussein and his sons.” He thinks that the assassins were from Najaf. If they are, this would confirm Elroubaei’s assertion that “there are a lot of people in the streets who have no responsibilities.”

Who is the top Shi’ite authority in Iraq at the moment? In Najaf, the al-Hawza says that 68-year-old Grand Ayatollah Sistani is a crucial reference in these troubled times. Others point to Kazem al-Haari, who left for Iran 25 years ago. As far as Elroubaei is concerned, the Shi’ite political parties based in Iran “have no popular base in Iraq. Most Iraqi people want to hear the opinions of al-Hawza.” He insists though that “al-Hawza will not play a political role. But it will support any government who will serve the Iraqi people.” He also says, significantly, “there’s no political role for Ayatollah Sistani.” There are indeed subtle distinctions between the top Shi’ite names. For the office of Ayatollah al-Sadr, al-Haari is the most popular. For Najafis, Sistani is the most popular.

There are photos of the Great Ayatollah al-Sadr – who along with his sister was slaughtered on Saddam’s orders in April 1980 – on sale all over Najaf; but it takes a real pilgrimage to find a photo of Sistani. This may have to do with the fact that al-Sadr was killed by Saddam, and Sistani is still alive: for Shi’ites, martyrs hold the ultimate power.

In the 1991 Shi’ite uprising following the Gulf War, the anti-Saddam rebels briefly took control of Najaf and Karbala, before Saddam’s forces wiped them out with brute force. This political disaster taught them many lessons. It’s wrong to think along Elroubaei’s lines that the political parties based in Iran have no base inside Iraq.

The Da’wa Party claims to be very well connected inside Iraq. Their spiritual leader is none other than Ayatollah al-Sadr. His martyrdom is one of the foundation stones of the party. According to a privileged Iranian source, in the beginning of the war the Da’wa Party did not exactly disagree with the Anglo-American invasion. Anybody was welcomed to remove Saddam. But Da’wa is vigorously against a military protectorate. It insists a maximum of two months are enough to organize an election. It’s not thinking in terms of a general election for a parliament in the initial stage, but local elections for municipal officials. These officials would organize a constitutional assembly and then general elections. Da’wa is absolutely against the two-year or more transition period preferred by the Pentagon. If it happens, it will be colonization, and Da’wa will engage in armed struggle against the foreign invaders. Da’wa are more “moderate,” in a sense, than the Supreme Assemble for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI). They know that America will remain in Iraq – for some period of time. But they are adamant: Iraq’s future should be determined by Iraqis themselves. Da’wa officials spent a long time in exile, and some imbibed a lot of Western culture; they are certainly not hardcore Islamists. For instance, their take on the application of one form or another of Sharia (Islamic law) is that it should be a parliamentarian decision. And crucially, they reject the concept of velayat-al-faqih – or government by specialists of Islamic jurisprudence. The SAIRI, and its leader Ayatollah Hakim, is totally aligned on this matter with Iranian supremo Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ayatollah Sistani’s position is much more complex than the position of political parties based in Iran – although not dissimilar. The ayatollah never left Najaf. Saddam tried to assassinate him at least four times. And he is not pro-Iranian. He was in the eye of the storm only a while ago, concerning his alleged fatwa in favor of neutrality during the war – something that was welcomed at the American Central Command in Qatar.

His official website had to post a window in Arabic denying “anything said by the Western press agencies” attributing a fatwa to him. And in London, the al-Khoei Foundation of Abdul Majid al-Khoei (who is the son of the late Abul Qasem al-Khoei from the first Gulf War, who tried in vain to meet General Norman Schwartzkopf in the desert to prevent a repression of the Shi’ites by Saddam) denied the existence of the fatwa.

Abdul Majid al-Khoei went to Najaf courtesy of the American army. He arranged for the safety of Sistani and three others who were captives in Najaf of Saddam’s Fedayeen when Ba’ath militia were occupying Imam Ali’s shrine. Sistani was finally liberated. He is in good health, but he is not talking to anyone for the moment.

According to the al-Khoei foundation, neither the supposed Sistani pronouncement on neutrality nor another so-called fatwa from September 2002 nailed on the doors of Baghdad’s mosques could be qualified as fatwas. A fatwa is a religious edict that results from a learned analysis of a point of Islamic jurisprudence. Sistani, some say, just made a statement. Ayatollahs in his position are usually asked questions regarding all sorts of current issues. The answers are usually circumstantial, and don’t carry the same doctrinal weight as a fatwa. This means that in September 2002, and again in March 2003, Sistani reinforced the notion that in all the history of Islam, the protection of the umma (the community of the faithful) means that no infidel troops should occupy Muslim territory. So if Iraq is caught in the crossfire between a Western army and Saddam’s troops, what is the solution? Sistani (who still is not talking to the media) might have answered, or not answered: “do nothing.” This certainly wasn’t a fatwa.

It’s enlightening to note that Sistani’s position perfectly matches Ayatollah Hakim’s, the leader of SAIRI in Tehran. A few weeks ago, Hakim said, “I urge all Iraqis not to get involved in the fighting. They should not side, either with Saddam’s forces, or with the US-led forces.”

Hakim belongs to one of the most notable Shi’ite families in Iraq. His father is Muhsin Hakim al-Tabatabai, a senior ayatollah from Najaf who sharply criticized the Ba’ath repression against the Shi’ites in the 1950s and 1960s. Hakim wants the SAIRI to be fully representative of all Iraqi Muslims – Sunni and Shi’ite alike.

The SAIRI’s power base is basically in Basra, Najaf and Karbala. It has refused American funding, has tried to distance itself from any connection with America and is of course opposed to an American government in Iraq. The SAIRI’s paramilitary wing, the 40,000-strong Badr Brigades – mostly based in Iraqi Kurdistan – were prevented by Hakim from engaging in any military operations inside Iraq: this could be interpreted as support for the Anglo-American invasion. But Hakim said many times that the brigades were positioned inside Iraq and ready to speed up the fall of Saddam’s regime. Hakim said two weeks ago in Tehran that “if Americans are planning to stay in Iraq as an occupation force after Saddam, we have repeatedly stated that they will be faced by fierce armed resistance.” On his vision of a future Iraqi government, he said, “We don’t believe in a system that is based on sectarian or racial division. I think what the majority of Iraqi factions have come to recognize as the best political course for Iraq is the parliamentarian system on the basis of one-man one-vote, without applying any sectarian agenda. I also strongly believe that any future government should uphold the religious values of the Iraqi people, which are rooted in Islam. It has to be emphasized that Islam is the official religion of the state and that Sharia is the main source of legislation. That said, all the rights of the religious minorities will be respected. The cultural sensitivities and religious values of the Iraqi people have to be taken into account in any future Iraqi government,”

What is being said in Tehran is in effect reinforcing what is taking place in Najaf and Karbala. Elroubaei scoffs at the fact that there is “an unknown Iraqi” leading the Najaf provincial government. In his own personal opinion, “Iraqis reject any kind of foreign occupation. They will resist. When we believe they will not leave and are behaving as an occupation force, we will move.” He insists, “Our rallying cry is that there are no differences between Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Americans said that after the collapse of Saddam’s government and the search for weapons of mass destruction they will go. If they don’t go, we will take our measures.”

Shi’ites seem to know exactly what they want. And most of all what they don’t want. After so much oppression, the march to Karbala may be, on the surface, apolitical. But it may turn out to be the most profound political affirmation of direct democracy in the history of Mesopotamia.

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