Shi'ite Muslims around the world Tuesday held ritual celebrations marking the holy day known as Ashura, which commemorates the death of Muhammad's grandson. The Shi'ite ceremonies in Lebanon followed clashes between Sunnis and Shi'ites that killed at least seven people last week. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough attended the ceremonies in Nabatiyeh, Lebanon.
Thousands of men and boys paraded through the streets of Nabatiyeh, rhythmically beating their chests and heads as they chanted Shi'ite prayers.
Many had blood streaming down their faces, staining their special white garments a crimson red. Inside the mosque, men with razor blades were tapping them on the heads with practiced precision. Some of the children were too young to walk, and went through the procedure in the arms of their parents, who encouraged them not to cry. The floor was slippery with water and blood.
Volunteers from the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies milled around in the crowd, carrying stretchers for anyone who might be overcome. Temporary medical clinics were set up in tents outside.
Ashura commemorates the death of the grandson of Muhammad, Imam Hussein, who was killed by the Sunni Caliph Yazid in the Battle of Karbala in the year 680. Hussein and his father, Imam Ali, are especially revered by Shi'ite Muslims, and the painful rituals of Ashura are meant to remind them of Hussein's courage and sacrifice.
This year, the Ashura commemorations took on special significance for some, and security was unusually tight around the processions in Lebanon, following last week's deadly clashes between mainly Sunni government supporters and mainly Shi'ite opposition members.
During the ceremonies, columns of soldiers in riot gear lined the roads around the mosque, and others carrying assault rifles stood guard outside the area where the commemorations were taking place.
A teenager named Mohammad and two of his friends said the ongoing political and sectarian tension was the reason the crowd was unusually large this year.
"This year is more than last year," he said.
"More, yes, more people. Because the situation in Lebanon is ... is difficult," his friend said.
In Beirut, a massive crowd of mainly Hezbollah supporters marched through the streets of the southern suburbs to mark the holy day. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made his third public speech in as many days, responding to recent criticism leveled at his group by U.S. President George Bush.
Mr. Bush on Monday accused Hezbollah and its allies in Syria and Iran of deliberately causing chaos and violence in Lebanon in an effort to topple the government.
Nasrallah turned that accusation around, accusing President Bush of trying to spark civil wars in the Middle East. He said he would wear the U.S. leader's condemnation with pride.
"When the greatest Satan declares his enmity and his war against us, this is a great honor of which we are proud," he said. "This is evidence of our originality, independence, dignity and patriotism, because the Americans do not declare the war on their collaborators, their tools or their slaves."
But analysts say the group is wagering much of its political capital on its anti-government protests, which have now dragged on for nearly two months - with no results.
Timur Goksel is a former longtime U.N. spokesman in Lebanon who now teaches at the American University in Beirut. He says it is clear the sectarian fighting last week rattled everyone, on both sides, including the leaders of Hezbollah.
"I think they all, they are all ready to back out, and I think they actually did back out from this street confrontation," he said. "Because now they know they cannot control it. I mean, can you imagine how expensive this would be for Hezbollah to get involved in a situation like this? There is already a lot of complaint in the Shia ranks, 'What are we doing?'"
Back in Nabatiyeh, men marched through the streets beating drums and waving banners, including the Iraqi flag.
Mohammad and his friends were convinced that there would be no civil war - but mainly because they think their rivals on the government side do not have the courage to fight. If there is a war, they believe that Hezbollah will win, hands down.
"We are strong. We are very strong. In the end, we are the winners. Yes! We can kill him anytime, [whenever] we want, any time. We are strong, yes," they said.
They derisively call Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and his supporters chickens.
But Goksel says some in Hezbollah were surprised at the ferocity with which the government supporters, known as the March 14 Movement, fought back when things turned violent last week.
"Actually March 14 surprised them a bit," he said. "They surprised them, also on Tuesday they surprised them a bit. Until that moment Hezbollah thought that, given their overwhelming power, in militia terms, that they were not challengeable. Because Hezbollah is very wary about escalating this, you know."
He says Hezbollah bases its internal legitimacy on presenting itself as an Islamic resistance movement, fighting Lebanon's external enemies, mainly Israel. But as a domestic political party, he says, the group cannot afford to squander its political capital by participating in what he calls stupid street fights against other Lebanese.