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Thousands Gather at Shiite Pilgrimage - 2003-04-22

Thousands of Iraqis have been pouring into the city of Karbala. This is the culmination of a pilgrimage outlawed by Saddam Hussein. Brian Purchia has more.

Waving black flags as a symbol of mourning and green flags to represent Islam Shiites gather in the streets of the Iraqi City of Karbala, near the tomb of the Imam Hussein. Imam Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and is revered as a martyr in the Shiite branch of Islam.

The ritual performed in Karbala is meant to commemorate the pain suffered by Imam Hussein when he was killed on a battlefield in this city in the seventh century. That battle led to the split between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam.

Many of the pilgrims walked for days to reach Imam Hussein's tomb, where some paid tribute to his suffering by beating themselves with chains, whips and swords.

This is primarily a religious event. But it has political significance too. The regime of Saddam Hussein banned the Shiite ritual, fearing its political undercurrents. The Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population. Shiites say they want to determine their own future.

"We are happy now for this occasion. But I tell you about the American troops here - we want them to go if the law becomes normal."

This British soldier responded:

"I have my family to go home to. I don't want to stay here forever. We will make peace for you. We will get things working again; we'll get people back to work. I've got 250 workers back to work in the last nine days."

Hoping to avoid any friction with the pilgrims, coalition troops have kept a low profile during the celebration and are positioned outside the city.