Tens-of-thousands of Iraq's Shiite Muslims have begun a religious pilgrimage, which for nearly three decades had been outlawed by deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu spoke to pilgrims in the Shiite city of Najaf, in central Iraq, about their new found religious freedom.
In a ritual that dates back to the division of Islam nearly 1500 years ago, thousands of Shiite pilgrims walk along a dusty stretch of road that connects Najaf to the city of Karbala, just south of Baghdad.
Many of the pilgrims making their way to the city carry large colored flags with symbolic meanings: Green flags representing Islam, and black flags representing mourning and suffering. Some of the men are carrying swords and whips, they will use to hit their heads and bodies, to remind people of the pain and suffering of the Shiite people.
Observing the colorful procession, 25-year-old Haider Nomman, a Shiite Muslim, says the gathering is a sight he thought he would never see in his life time.
He says when Saddam Hussein was in power, the government posted tanks along the highways to discourage Shiite Muslims from participating in the walk to Karbala. Many people who tried to defy the ban were never seen again.
"Saddam killed everyone who did this procedure previously," he said. "But now, this procedure is done freely, and the Iraqi people are very happy to do this."
The pilgrims are going to Karbala to observe one of the holiest days of the Shiite Muslim calendar. Next Tuesday, seven-million worshipers are expected to pay tribute at the tomb of Hussein, an ornate shrine inside the city. Karbala was where Hussein, the Shiite-venerated grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, was killed by Sunni Muslims during a seventh century battle. It is his death that Shiites commemorate and mourn during the six-day pilgrimage.
But worshipers say Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party banned the religious practice, fearing a large Shiite gathering could turn into an anti-government rally. Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people. But under Saddam's rule, they were brutally repressed and largely prevented from taking part in government and in the economy.
"In my life, this is the first time I can speak without looking at my [to the] side," one worshiper said. " Spies! Everywhere there were spies. We had fear from your brother, from your father."
But there are clear signs that the goodwill Iraqi Shiites now feel toward the United States could rapidly erode, if the United States cannot quickly establish order, and help build a new broad-based government that meets Shiite expectations.
Some Shiite religious factions have already distanced themselves from the U.S.-led process. Shiite representatives boycotted a meeting sponsored by the United States that was meant to bring together leaders of the various groups opposed to Saddam Hussein. Thousands of other Shiites protested against the gathering.
A university student in Najaf, Ahmed Kassam, says the meeting, which included representatives of prominent Iraqi exiles unknown to most people here, was an insult to the Shiites who stayed and struggled against Saddam in Iraq.
"The meeting does not represent our thoughts. Those who are meeting there have no ideas about our problems. We need people from our side, from our country that survived here, struggled here," he explained.
But for now, many Iraqi Shiites appear to be content with their ability to speak freely, and openly engage in practices and rituals long outlawed.
One pilgrim, who has walked 160 kilometers to Najaf from a town in the south, says he feels like he is living in a dream. His biggest fear, he says, is that he will wake up from the dream and find Saddam Hussein back in power.