The human chain of faith and devotion stretched unbroken: young men jogging in groups, chanting religious slogans and beating their chests; old men hobbling along, toting bundles of possessions on sticks slung over shoulders; women clad head to toe in black, walking separately, balancing purses or bottles of water on their heads.
Pilgrims all, the Shiite worshipers converged Sunday on the Iraqi holy city of Karbala to observe a centuries-old ceremony of sorrow and atonement that was suppressed during the 35-year rule of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
"We are supposed to be weeping, but I can't cry, I am just too happy," said Shindagh Ghayeb Idrissi, a toothless man dressed in rags. "I am a poor man. I have no job. But today my heart is flying because we are free."
The Shiite procession to Karbala is the largest demonstration yet of how Iraq's majority religious community is asserting its faith and traditions, a development that could have profound implications for postwar Iraq.
Shiite officials from the clerical committee that claims to control Karbala said they expect 4 million to 8 million people to arrive to attend Tuesday's ceremonies marking the anniversary of the 40th day of mourning for Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. His slaying by rival Muslims at a battle in Karbala in A.D. 680 cemented the schism between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.
For Shiites, who suffered most under Saddam Hussein's boot, the collapse of the Baathist regime and the new religious freedom taste especially sweet. The Iraqi president was a Sunni who never relented on the Shiites, even in later years when he began cloaking his deeds and rhetoric in the mantle of Islam.
In the days since Saddam Hussein's fall, Shiites have rushed to assert their identity in small but significant ways.
Pointing to the freshly sprouting beard on his chin, Ayad Jaber Hamed Alami, 28, said the rigidly secularist Baath Party officials in his neighborhood had once beaten him for trying to grow a beard in keeping with Shiite religious traditions.
"Now I am free to grow my beard, and I will never shave it off," Alami said as he paused at one of the tented rest camps set up along the way.
Khalafi Khalifa, a tribal elder, said it was the cruelty of the Iraqi regime that had turned him to religion.
"When I was a young man, I was not religious. But starting in 1991 I saw so much suffering among our people I decided I had to return to God," he said. "I made a vow that when Saddam was gone, I would walk to Karbala."
Influence on government
Already it is clear that any new government in Iraq will have to take into account the opinions of the Shiite majority, and notably of the powerful Shiite clergy of Najaf, the theological capital of Shiite Islam. They have moved to assert their influence in the days since the collapse of the Baath regime left Iraq without leaders or government.
From Basra to Baghdad, local clerics, citing the authority of Najaf's revered Hawza religious school, the world's premier center of Shiite learning, have stepped into the vacuum created by the collapse of the Baath Party to form local committees and assign armed young men to guard hospitals and homes against looters.
All along the road from Baghdad to Karbala, representatives of those committees, some with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, directed traffic and organized the flow of pilgrims. Many of the pilgrims carried banners declaring their allegiance to the Hawza school, whose alumni include the founder of the revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the spiritual guide of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.
The celebratory mood masked deep schisms within the Shiite community that have turned violent on more than one occasion since U.S. forces toppled Hussein's regime.
Divided over U.S.
At the heart of the divisions is the question of how the Shiite community will respond to the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and what kind of government Iraq should have in the future.
A moderate Shiite cleric who returned from London with America's blessing after the war, Ayatollah Abdul Majeed Al Khoei, was murdered in Najaf earlier this month, and Iraq's top Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, was surrounded by an angry mob calling for his death after he had urged cooperation with U.S. forces.
In conversations with pilgrims along the route to Karbala, those divisions were evident. Some expressed warm thanks to the Americans for freeing them from Hussein's rule.
"Every American who came here deserves a medal, and I think President Bush and his children will ascend into paradise, for they are truly good people," said Daha Musa Abed, a 35-year-old guard.
But in Karbala, armed young men guarding the approach to the gold-domed Imam Hussein Mosque, where Tuesday's ceremonies will be focused, said Americans were not welcome in Iraq.
"We will fight America, and I expect every Muslim in the world to declare a jihad to force America from our country," said Najrah Jassem Aboud, 28, whose badge identified him as an official of Hawza's "internal security department."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times