Babylon & Beyond

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IRAQ: For one pilgrim, a prayer for Bush

February 16, 2009 |  3:08 pm


President Bush may have left office with record low approval ratings from Americans, but in Iraq, Abu Zahra would walk 100 miles for him. In fact, he did, making the pilgrimage from Baghdad to Karbala and most of the way back along with hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of other Shiite Muslims marking the the death of Imam Hussein in 680 AD.

The pilgrimage, which began last week and ended Monday, is an annual event, closing the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein. Each year, it is marked by joy, devotion, and bloodshed, for mixed among the pilgrims are suicide bombers looking to incite sectarian violence and derail Iraq's security gains. This year was no different.


More than 60 pilgrims died in attacks that began last Thursday and ended Monday, when at least eight were killed in two separate bombings on buses bringing pilgrims back to Baghdad from Karbala. Arbaeen5_3 But the threats aren't enough to deter people like Abu Zahra, a former soldier in the Iraqi army during the regime of Saddam Hussein. Abu Zahra told his story while resting his feet outside a shrine in Baghdad's Kadhimiya neighborhood.

For 28 years he served under Hussein, who prohibited outpourings of Shiite devotion. Abu Zahra says he was shot twice during his years of service, in his legs and in his back, most recently during the U.S. invasion of March 2003. "I say thanks to Bush because he ousted  Saddam. I pray for him because he freed me," said Abu Zahra, a construction worker. He was missing several days' work to make this pilgrimage, but he didn't mind. He did the same thing last year and the same thing the year before, and he plans to do it again next year. "I'm making up for my past," he said.

Arbaeen2_3 Participants in this year's pilgrimage said the numbers taking part were unprecedented, no doubt because of better security. Tens of thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers manned checkpoints along the roads leading to Karbala, Traffic had been tied up since early last week on major highways throughout the country because of pilgrims blocking the lanes on foot and in crowded buses. 

Men, women, and entire families, often with children in baby carriages, streamed toward Karbala, where Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, was slain in battle.  "The explosions will not stop us," said Abu Zahra. He walked most of the way, but many pilgrims catch rides back home after walking one way.

Nearby, Yaser Ali was dragging his feet as he walked. It was his third year making the pilgrimage. The taxi driver was willing to lose several days' work to take part in the journey. Mohammed Saad, a 20-year-old student, estimated the pilgrimage crowd to be twice that of previous years. He had set aside his studying for the occasion. Even when times were more dangerous he did not hesitate to take part. If something bad occurred, he would die a martyr, Saad said with a smile.

— Usama Redha and Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photos by Usama Redha