Shiites in Muslim world solemnly mark day of grief

Associated Press
Shiite Muslim supporters of the Hezbollah group, walk barefoot beating their chests during Ashoura day, in the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010. Thursday's commemorations marked the climax of Ashoura, the yearly mourning period in which Shiite Muslims remember the seventh century death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, in a battle in the central city of Karbala. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
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Shiites across the Muslim world commemorated their most somber day of the year Thursday with solemn processions where some beat their chests or cut themselves with swords and chains to mourn the death some 1,300 years ago of one of their most beloved saints.

Bombings in Iraq targeted Shiite pilgrims, killing two as they walked to holy sites. In Pakistan, 16 people were wounded, two critically, when an assailant threw an explosive device at a Shiite procession.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Narsallah used an address marking the occasion, called Ashoura, to call for armed resistance against Israel and unity between Shiites and Sunnis.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai urged insurgents to embrace peace.

This year's Ashoura comes amid tensions between Islam's rival Sunni and Shiite sects.

Two suicide bombings Wednesday blamed on a radical Sunni group killed at least 39 people at a ceremony marking Ashoura near a Shiite mosque in southeastern Iran. The group, Jundallah, or Soldiers of God, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on its website.

Security was tight Thursday at Ashoura commemorations in Sunni-majority Pakistan, where a long-running sectarian conflict has gained traction in recent years due to the Sunni Taliban insurgency. Shiite Muslim processions in major cities have at times been attacked by bombers.

To mark Ashoura, Shiites march in massive processions, beating their chests in mourning for the 680 A.D. martyrdom at Karbala, present-day Iraq, of Imam Hussein, one of the sect's most beloved saints and a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

But the most devout of Shiites cut themselves with swords or razors, or lash their backs with razor-lined chains to draw blood, rituals that reflect the sect's immersion in a narrative of mourning, martyrdom and suffering.

Police were out in force in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. As in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, people who wanted to join the main procession in the city had to undergo body searches. Thousands of people joined in, hoisting flags and banners as they mourned Hussein.

Authorities in Pakistan are on high alert for attacks on Shiites marking Ashoura. But an assailant in the city of Peshawar near the Afghan border wounded 16 pilgrims when he threw an explosive device on a Shiite procession.

Iraqi Shiites did not make their customary annual pilgrimage to a holy shrine in southern Jordan this year, amid rising Sunni-Shiite Muslim tensions in the Arab world.

Hundreds of Shiites from Iraq and Iran usually visit the shrine of Jaafar bin Abi Taleb, one of Prophet Muhammad's companions, in Jordan's southern town of Mazar to mark Ashoura.

In Iraq, bombings in Baghdad and a small town to the north killed two pilgrims and wounded nine who were headed to Ashoura ceremonies in Karbala, home of Imam Hussein's shrine. The killed and wounded were among hundreds of thousands who headed to Karbala to mark Ashoura.

Security forces created three layers of checkpoints outside the gold-domed Imam Hussein shrine in the city's center to protect the pilgrims expected to converge there by Ashoura's peak Friday morning.

Pilgrim Kadhim Jawad, 45, walked for 13 hours from Najaf, a holy Shiite city south of Karbala, for the ceremonies. He said he was not frightened by the explosions.

"On the contrary, we wish today, on this day, to end our pilgrimage by martyrdom so we can be in paradise with Imam Hussein," he said.

Sunni insurgents have consistently targeted Shiite pilgrims with bombings, rockets and mortars since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who was hanged in 2006.

In Lebanon, tens of thousands of black-clad Shiites walked in a procession in Hezbollah's stronghold south of Beirut, many beating their chests in mourning.

In the southern market town of Nabatiyeh, blotches of blood covered the ground as fervent Shiites cut their heads with knives and razors, drawing blood that slid down their foreheads and white shrouds symbolizing their willingness to die.

Nine-month old Mohammed Maatouk burst out crying in the arms of his father when barber Khodr Kamal made a small cut in his head with a razor as part of the rituals.

Addressing the crowds south of Beirut, Nasrallah praised an Arab decision to halt peace talks with Israel, saying the only option remaining is armed resistance against the Jewish state.

His remarks came a day after Arab foreign ministers rejected any Israel-Palestinian peace talks before the U.S. takes a firm stance on the future borders of a Palestinian state.

Nasrallah says Arab leaders finally realized that talks with Israel are "dead."

Nasrallah, who lives in hiding, spoke through a video link.

"The negotiations have ended, and the settlement has died and turned into cadavers, but many still refuse to acknowledge its death," he said.

"There is no choice for this (Arab) nation but to recover land dignity and holy sites through resistance," he said.

Karzai, the Afghan president, spoke at a mosque in the Afghan capital , Kabul, to honor the day. He told the gathering that the message of Ashoura is one of peace and urged insurgent groups to embrace that message.

"I want to use this opportunity and call on our brothers to come and join the peace process and do their best to bring peace and stability to our country and our region," said Karzai.

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AP reporters Heidi Vogt in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nahal Toosi in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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