KARBALA, Iraq (AP) — Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan chanted, paraded and beat their chests on Tuesday as they marked Ashoura, one of the most important dates on the religious calendar, commemorating the 7th century martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein.
The symbols of Shiite piety and penitence blanketed major cities in Iraq, where Hussein was believed killed at the battle of Karbala, south of Baghdad, in 680 A.D.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people converge on Karbala, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad, to observe the solemn holy day.
Shiites carried out one of the most spectacular rituals of the holy day, involving thousands of people sprinting from an area outside the center of Karbala toward the gold-domed shrine of Hussein to enact their rush to answer their beloved saint's cries for help in battle.
Shiites see Hussein and his descendants as the rightful heirs to the prophet. His killing at the hands of a rival Muslim faction embodies the rift between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam and continues to shape the identity of the minority branch of Islam today.
The public rituals of Ashoura often fuel sectarian tensions in places like Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan where Islam’s two main sects both reside.
Security forces were on high alert for any violence, as Sunni extremist groups that consider the Shiites heretics have seized on the occasion to mount attacks in years past.
Pakistan's Interior Ministry warned militants could target the Ashoura commemorations. Under stepped-up security measures, mass rallies continued for a second day in Islamabad and major cities across Pakistan, where participants rhythmically beat their bodies with knife-edged chains. Men staggered through the streets, blood dripping down their backs.
“Imam Hussain taught us to fight against oppression,” said Syed Muhammad Haider Naqvi, a Shiite scholar at a procession in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. “He taught us not to let anyone usurp others’ rights.”
In Iraq, the powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has used the emotional religious occasion to stir up support for his movement, deepening the country's inter-Shiite divisions. Unable to form a government, Iraq descended further into political chaos last week when thousands of al-Sadr's supporters stormed and occupied the parliament building. Their sit-in continues outside the assembly, making it impossible for lawmakers to convene and raising the specter of civil strife.
In the Shiite-dominated Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, al-Sadr's portrait hangs from nearly every door. Processions of men and boys expressed extreme fervor in the Ashoura rituals of self-flagellation. They beat their heads and chests in unison and whipped themselves with chains until blood started flowing.
“We inherited this from our fathers and grandfathers,” said participant Hamza Abdul-Jalil. “God willing, we will continue on this path.”
In Lebanon, where Shiites make up about a third of the Mediterranean nation’s 5 million people, processions shut down areas across the country and Beirut’s biggest suburb, the stronghold of the militant Hezbollah group.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed the large gathering of Ashoura mourners in south Beirut, delivering a stern warning to archenemy Israel over the two countries' maritime border dispute.
“We are serious in this battle to the maximum level,” Nasrallah proclaimed to the procession.
Tens of thousands of men, women and children shrouded in black marched through the streets, waving yellow Hezbollah flags. The chants of mourners and thunder of blood-soaked men beating their chests echoed in the air.
“At your service, oh Hussein,” they cried.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.