BAGHDAD — Sheikh Mohammad al-Ethawi, resplendent in his gold-trimmed robe and white headdress, hands out oranges to Shi'a pilgrims walking by a striped tent on the main route to the holy city of Karbala.
Shi'a and Sunni 'Sons of Iraq' guard force lay down their rifles to serve Shi'a pilgrims on their way to Karbala south of Baghdad. PHOTOS:Jane Arraf
"A lot of people were afraid last year," said Ethawi, the head of the Hathar tribal council in southern Baghdad. The council, a mix of Sunni and Shi'a leaders, is hosting a rest stop that offers food, drinks, and shelter along the roads choked with pilgrims, who walk for days to reach the holy city. The pilgrimage commemorates Arbaeen, the end of 40 days of mourning for the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein in battle 13 centuries ago.
The Iraqi government launched a massive security effort for this year's pilgrimage that culminated Monday with an estimated six million people gathering in Karbala. Most seemed undeterred by scattered attacks along the route, including a female suicide bomber who killed at least 40 people when she blew herself up at a rest stop south of Baghdad and another bomb in Karbala that killed eight.
"It was a small explosion," said Jamil Dawoud, driving through Radwaniyah, 10 miles south of the capital, on his way back from the holy city.
Shiekh Mohammad al-Ethawi, a Sunni tribal leader in south Baghdad, outside a hospitality tent for Shi'a pilgrims on the Doura Highway heading south of Baghdad. More than a million pilgrims were walking from Baghdad and further north to Karbala in commemoration of Arbaeen - the 40 days of mourning for the death of Imam Hussein in battle in 680. This is the first time in three years the highway has been safe enough for pilgrims.
The rural area where one of Saddam Hussein's larger palaces rises just beyond the hayfields and date palms had been too dangerous to drive through until recently.
"Last year, if you stopped here they would have killed you," said Dawoud.
Sunnis now help
In Baghdad, the improved security has led some Sunnis to once again openly participate in the mostly Shi'a commemoration. Hanan Faleh Abdul Qadir, a retired accountant, this year is again openly cooking for her neighbors in Al-Adel.
"For the past two years I cooked clandestinely and carried the dishes under my abaya to distribute to neighbors I trusted," said Abdul Qadir. She said her son was kidnapped and tortured in 2006 after he defended Shi'a neighbors who had been ordered to leave their homes.
"This year I cooked a lot of food in my garage and distributed it to all the neighbors," she said. Apart from being neighborly, Abdul Qadir notes that her actions also reflect a Sunni reverence for the Prophet's grandson.
Zainab Hadi stops to rest with her daughter Sumah in her arms. She and her husband are walking from Sadr City to Karbala.
"If we decided to separate the Sunni from Shi'a we would have to divide the bedrooms," said Abbas, referring to the countless intermarriages.
Although the attacks appeared intended to reignite sectarian violence, the Shi'a pilgrims were unwilling to blame their Sunni countrymen for the suicide bombers.
"It's people from outside Iraq," said Suad Mohammad Katham, who walked for two days from Baghdad with her 13-year-old niece. "They must have drugged her and then put the vest on her."
Security forces guard route
On Saturday, after the latest bombing, random body searches by volunteers were stepped up on the roads out of Baghdad. Iraqi security forces stood watch every 200 yards along the 40-mile route from the capital to Karbala, where tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police were deployed. Near Mahmudiyah, U.S. backup included air support and a quick reaction force. Lt. Col. Jim Bradford, a U.S. Army battalion commander, said an estimated 4 million pilgrims had passed through Muhmudiyah with no major incidents.
The wave of pilgrims, many of them poor and jobless, carried a sea of prayers of a people recovering from war and a country struggling to put itself together. Many were making the pilgrimage to ask Imam Hussein to intercede with God to cure loved ones.
Each pilgrim's path is unique
Suad Mohammad Katham, her plastic sandals digging into her feet, was walking to Karbala to give thanks for her mother's improved health. Katham had made a previous pilgrimage to pray for her.
Nathal Qassim had a flag of Hussein furling around her traditional black cloak. Her husband was shot in an armed robbery six months ago on Baghdad's Palestine Street. "I'm praying to find the murderer and for all of those who have loved ones missing," she said.
In Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, where the hold of religious extremists has loosened, huge flags depicting Hussein flew next to shop windows crammed with fuzzy red hearts and plastic roses for Valentine's Day.
With the almost unimaginable violence of the last two years waning, Iraqis seem to be finding a way to live together again – a willingness to forgive is seen as a key test to the country's future.
Torture didn't break spirit
At one of the hospitality tents in Karrada, Thamer Tariq Barhoum, an unemployed house painter, said he was released from Camp Bucca, a U.S. prison in the south of Iraq, six months ago when he was found innocent after spending 40 months in U.S. and Iraqi detention.
Barhoum, a father of six, said he was tortured by Iraqi security forces after being accused of attacking U.S. soldiers. He bears the scars of being hit with a rifle butt and what he said was burning plastic dripped onto his wrists.
Despite all this, Barhoum said he bears no hatred against the Iraqi officer who he said administered the torture. "I don't have anything against him," he said. "After he beat me, he brought me food and apologized – he was ordered by his superiors to do it." He said he was better treated by his American captors after he was handed over.
A tribal court — more trusted than Iraq's civil courts — ordered the Iraqi policeman who falsely accused him to pay more than $4,000 in compensation. He is still waiting for compensation from U.S. authorities. "They gave me $20 for taxi fare," he said.