The chanting began well after dark and grew gradually. Then under the glow of Umm Qasr's newly restored streetlights, the men came into sight--dancing down the dusty street, leaping and striking themselves on the back and forehead with sticks.
"We will never forget Hussein," the men chanted.
They had come to praise not Saddam Hussein but another Hussein whose name had not been celebrated in such a fashion for decades.
"This is the first day of Shiite freedom," said Ali, one of several awed townspeople gathered on the dark roadside to watch the unusual ritual. "This is the first time anyone is confident enough to do this."
For the first time in what residents said was nearly 30 years, the majority Shiite Muslims of southern Iraq commemorated Ashura in Umm Qasr. The Shiite self-flagellation ritual commemorates the killing in A.D. 680 of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and a man venerated as a martyr.
Practice of the religious ritual, long discouraged by Saddam Hussein's minority Sunni regime, has been punishable by death, residents said.
That the faithful took to the streets overnight, they said, was evidence of growing local confidence among Shiites that Saddam Hussein is really on his way out.
"I haven't seen this since I was 6 years old," said Ali, now 34 and too nervous to give his last name as he watched the spectacle. "It hasn't happened anywhere in Iraq in 30 years."
During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Iraq's southern Shiite Muslims were encouraged by the United States to rebel against Hussein. When the U.S. eventually left without deposing the dictator, tens of thousands of Shiites in southern Iraq were tortured or slaughtered.
Hesitant to rebel
In Umm Qasr, nearly everyone seems to have a relative who died. This time, the Shiites have been more hesitant to rebel. But in Umm Qasr, the only pacified town in the region, residents are beginning to believe that change will come.
"For 25 years we couldn't do anything because we were not free and we were always afraid. But we did this last night, and we finally felt free, even though we are still afraid," said Abdul Rahman Mushen, the white-bearded man who broadcasts the call to prayer five times a day from Umm Qasr's Shiite mosque.
The Shiite branch of the Muslim faith--a more stringent form of Islam that grew in part out of Hussein's killing--dominates in Umm Qasr, as in much of southern Iraq. Friday noon prayers at the Shiite mosque, near the central market, drew more than 100 men. The Sunni mosque across the street was empty.
Worshipers at the Shiite prayers said they had suffered years of repression under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Most Shiite rituals are banned--including the commemoration of Ashura, also known as the Tenth of Moharram--and Shiites have been discouraged from attending prayers regularly, they said.
"There have been no freedoms here," Ali said. "If you go to the mosque too often, you're gone. They know if you are praying here, you are against the regime. People have been hanged or put in jail for coming too often."
"I hate Saddam Hussein. He attacked my Islam," added a middle-age man who would not give his name. "Saddam is not a Muslim but an animal, a murderer."
Iraq's southern Shiites have much to gain if Saddam Hussein's regime is deposed, including potential political control.
Last week, in a sign of increasing Shiite confidence, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a prominent Shiite cleric, urged Iraqis not to resist or interfere with U.S. and British forces.
"From an Arab and Iraqi perspective [this] may demonstrate more clearly Saddam's imminent demise than the presence of U.S. forces on the outskirts of Basra," said Dale Davis, director of the Office of International Programs at the Virginia Military Institute and a leading military analyst on Iraq.
Umm Qasr's Shiites predicted that Saddam Hussein's fall would not spark wider fighting between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites, as the country struggles toward a new balance of power between the southern Shiites, northern Kurds and central Sunnis.
"Between Shiite and Sunni there are only small differences," Ali insisted. "There will be a big fight, but between Shiites and the Baath Party, not the people."
Among the faithful who paraded Thursday through the streets, beating their bodies with sticks in commemoration of Hussein's pain, was 21-year-old Rade Karem.
"I was very happy and I felt free," Karem said of his first participation in a ritual that he had heard about all his life.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times