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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Iraq Tense Ahead of Arbaeen

Shi'a pilgrims are flooding into Iraq and heading toward Karbala for the commemoration of Arba'een. Arba'een, simply Arabic for forty, marks the fortieth day after the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib and his companions at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. This battle came on Ashura, Arabic for ten, the tenth day of the month of Muhharram.

Hussein was the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin of the Prophet Muhammed, and Fatima, the Prophet's daughter. Hussein and his companions were hunted down and killed by a force of the Umayyad caliph, Yazid, headed by Umar ibn Sa'ad. Hussein's martyrdom did much to crystallize a sense of persecution in the followers of Ali (Shi'a Ali). The Shi'a were often a repressed minority throughout Islamic history and the Ashura and Arbaeen rituals have been powerful reminders of this status and the trials they have gone through at the hands of others.

This year, the situation is tense as pilgrims flock to Karbala for Arbaeen. Four bomb attacks since Wednesday have killed at least 46 people and the Iraqi government has set out heavy security in the areas in and around Karbala to attempt to prevent further violence as reported by AFP.

Many analysts do not believe that these attacks will bring about a revival of the wave of sectarian war sparked by the bombing of the Askariyya Shrine in 2006. The shrine, located in Samarra, is the resting place of the 10th and 11th Shi'a Imams and was blown up by Sunni militants linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The violence that came in the wake of this bombing had more to do with battling for strategic control of territory between Iraqi groups than sectarian animosity. As such, the situation has been sorted out and is much more stable today than it was in 2006. More bloody attacks, however, could certainly result in some degree of increased sectarian violence and will hamper attempts to create trust and reconciliation through national, rather than sectarian, political cooperation ahead of national elections later this year.

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