Anti-Saudi tide rising in Iraq….with pilgrimage swelling

Iraq’s leaders use a Shiite holiday to shift attention from Iran to its Sunni neighbors.

By Sam Dagher | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Shiite Iraqis began arriving here this week for a mass pilgrimage Thursday to a revered imam’s shrine. Much of the city is now locked down, closed off to protect the nearly 1 million faithful expected to pay tribute in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiya.

But not only is this march to honor Imam Musa al-Kadhim in a Shiite Muslim rite, it has become a show of newfound power and defiance in the face of hard-line Sunni suicide bombers who continue to wreak havoc in their communities.

This year’s pilgrimage also comes amid an unprecedented wave of anger toward Saudi Arabia. Government and religious leaders here charge that the neighboring kingdom is doing little to stem the flow of its nationals to Iraq to wage “holy war” on Shiites.

The Saudi backlash is being fueled by Iraqi media reports and Shiite leaders’ condemnations of apparent fatwas, religious rulings by Saudi muftis calling for the destruction of Shiite shrines in Iraq.

But some Saudi Arabian analysts say this is a way for Baghdad’s pro-Iranian leaders to steer attention away from Tehran’s involvement in Iraq and toward its Sunni neighbors. In spite of questions about their authenticity, the fatwas are stirring up much of the Shiite community and is indeed coloring this year’s pilgrimage.

“It is going to be the pilgrimage of defiance in the face of these fatwas that desecrate the imams and call for the destruction of their shrines,” says Hazem al-Araji, a leader in the movement of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

“Every Shiite that venerates the imams must say to the mufti [Sunni cleric] that we will defend the imams with our blood,” he says.

As pilgrims began arriving Tuesday, the image of seventh Shiite Imam Musa al-Kadhim in shackles hung on banners over the neighborhood of Kadhimiya. The imam was poisoned about 1,200 years ago.

His persecution resonates deeply in Iraq today as Shiites try to hold onto unprecedented political gains while being viewed with suspicion in the Sunni Muslim world, especially in Sunni-led Saudi Arabia where Shiites are seldom allowed to openly practice their religion.

“So far, the Saudi attitude in particular, and the Arab one in general, has been negative toward the political process in Iraq,” says Ridha Jawad Taqi, an Iraqi Shiite parliamentarian. “If they want nothing to do with us then we will just look for friends elsewhere.”

Further fanning the flames of anti-Saudi public sentiment is the outrage expressed over an incident that Mr. Taqi says took place Sunday in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, when a group of Iraqi Shiites, including his son, were roughed up by Saudi security forces.

“They noticed they were Shiites because one of them was wearing a black turban so they rounded 12 of them up and beat them up with batons including my son Amir,” he says, adding that his son plans to sue Saudi authorities, who have not publicly commented on the incident.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrived in Tehran on Wednesday to discuss security and economic cooperation with Iran. Business, diplomatic, cultural, and religious ties are rapidly deepening between both countries.

Mr. Maliki even vowed Monday to crack down on the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization, an Iranian dissident group once nurtured by Saddam Hussein during his long war with Iran’s clerical regime but is now under the protection of US forces in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad.

One Saudi fatwa allegedly called for the destruction of the mausoleum of Imam Hussein in Karbala, south of Baghdad. The violent death of the third imam and his companions in battle against the caliph’s army in AD 680 marked the schism between Sunnis and Shiites. The intensity of the standoff over the centuries tended to track regional political upheaval.

And Iraq authorities are taking the threats seriously, especially in light of the bombing of the twin minarets at the Askariya shrine in Samarra north of Baghdad in June that followed an attack on its dome in February 2006.

A three-day ban on vehicle traffic starting Wednesday has been imposed in Baghdad with extra checkpoints springing up all over the city.


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