Qais Mizher, The Washington Post
KARBALA, Iraq – A group of 5,000 Iraqi Shiite demonstrators in the city of Karbala turned the religious observance of Ashoura into a political protest against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday, expressing wide-ranging criticisms as the country prepares for a critical national election in early March.
The protesters gathered outside the Imam Hussein shrine to greet the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had descended on the city. "We don't vote for people who steal public money," the protesters shouted.
The anti-government overtones surrounding the holiday, banned under Saddam Hussein's regime, were a marked change from recent years. After the U.S. invasion, the day had been embraced by the country's Shiite majority as a moment to express solidarity in their newfound political power and long-frustrated religious freedom.
This year, Ashoura fell at the beginning of the campaign season for the March 7 national election, which is to decide the face of the Iraqi government during and after the U.S. withdrawal. Tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces were deployed on the streets to prevent possible violence that would further weaken the credibility of Maliki's government, which has been severely tested by a string of deadly bombings.
On Saturday in Baghdad, Shiite leader Amar al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, offered thinly veiled criticisms of the government during a speech commemorating Ashoura, comparing what he said were the struggles of Imam Hussein's fight against corruption to the present day. Ashoura is the day of mourning for Imam Hussein, the Shiite saint whose death in the seventh century sealed the rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims over the succession of the prophet Muhammad.
"We can see that history is repeating itself. We can see the political money, temptations and seductions," Hakim said at the Kihlani mosque in central Baghdad. "Iraqi people don't want the promises to disappear after the elections."
The political potential of Ashoura was exactly why Saddam Hussein had so feared it, according to Shakir al-Najjar, a 70-year-old poet who helped organize the Karbala protests.
"We had believed that Maliki's government and most of the politicians were a part of us, and we used to support them, especially after they executed Saddam," he said. "But finally we discovered that they don't represent us, so we decided to protest against them for the first time on Ashoura this year."
The Washington Post