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Religious rivalries and political overtones in Iraq

Powerful, but unseen leaders

By Karl Penhaul

For the first time in decades, Shiite Muslims in Iraq walk to the Shiite holy city of Karbala to mark the end of the 40-day mourning of Imam al-Hussein.

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KARBALA, Iraq (CNN) -- Bare feet slap on the dusty street. Fists beat on chests like hollow drums.

Shiite Muslim pilgrims appear slapping whips made of metal chains on their backs to the solemn clash of cymbals.

Then a group of 100 men kneel down in front of the gold-domed mosque as one of their number draws a long sword and ritually slashes their scalps. Blood oozes.

Religious chants alternate with political harangues: "No to America! No to Israel! No to the Devil!"

Then "Death to America!" -- a chant U.S. and British coalition forces, fresh from "liberating" Iraq from President Saddam Hussein, probably thought they'd never hear.

Iraq's Shiite Muslims make up two-thirds of the total 23 million population and suffered years of oppression at the hands of Saddam. Coalition war planners saw the Shiites as potentially strong and loyal allies.

This city in central Iraq is journey's end for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who walked here from the four corners of the country to pay homage at the shrine of Imam al-Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

He was killed in battle outside Karbala in 680 as he led a failed uprising against what he regarded as an unjust Muslim faction. He's now revered by the estimated 130 million followers of the Shiite branch of Islam worldwide approximately 10 percent of total Muslims.

The pilgrimage, which came to an end Wednesday, has undoubtedly been the largest public gathering since Saddam was toppled. It became a mass celebration at newfound religious freedoms. The last time Shiites were able to walk to the shrine, as their tradition dictates, was in 1977. That ended with a massacre at the gates of Karbala.

Saddam then prohibited the marchers but allowed a much more restrictive gathering, bringing in only small numbers aboard buses and trucks an apparent effort to deprive the majority Shiites of a meeting point where dissent against the regime could flourish.

He may not have been far wrong.

Ayatollah Khomeini a best seller

This year's pilgrimage fast took on major political overtones and opened a window on the difficulties that may lie ahead for the coalition forces if they wish to remain long-term and seek to impose their own-picked leaders on Iraq, even if that is under the guise of setting up an interim administration.

"Britain and America must go home. They have nothing more to do here. The Iraqi people must now be left alone to decide our future. We can handle our own matters," said one pilgrim amid a raucous group.

On the sidelines of the route of the pilgrimage, a young man was selling photographs of Shiite religious leaders from Iraq and abroad. The best seller: Ayatollah Khomeini Shiite Muslim revolutionary and one-time scourge of the United States.

"Even though he is dead he is one of our leaders," said the street trader.

Despite the tough sounding slogans there were no signs of antagonism toward Western journalists covering the pilgrimage. The marchers' major battle was against fatigue and dehydration in the 100 degree-plus heat.

Before the pilgrimage began, Shiite clerics had called on U.S. forces to stay off the streets of Karbala a request that was heeded. Foot soldiers remained on the outskirts of the city.

There was a shudder of alarm, however, at one point as a pair of U.S. Kiowa Warrior observation helicopters kept an eye on proceedings from about 1,000 feet.

Unfounded rumors also surged through the crowd that U.S. troops would occupy the city around midday Wednesday and break up the gathering.

With this pilgrimage, Shiite Muslims made it clear they are a force to be reckoned with when deciding Iraq's political future. What has not yet been fully defined is which of a group of leading clerics will take on the mantle of their leader.

Some 45 miles away lies the city of Najaf, Islam's third holiest city after Mecca and Medina and home to the Tomb of Imam Ali, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and father of Karbala's Imam al-Hussein.

Since the fall of Saddam a religious power play has been under way as two main factions vie for control of the Shiite masses.

Leaders in hiding

The leaders of both groups Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Maulana Said Moqtada Sadr -- are in hiding citing general security risks but stopping short of accusing their rivals of making specific threats. A third cleric Abdul Majid Al-Khoei was stabbed to death inside the Tomb of Ali after he returned to Najaf in the days immediately after the fall of Saddam after years of exile in London.

Nobody in Najaf will say who the killers were. The surviving rivals point the finger at Baath party members but at the same time make little secret of their distaste for returning exiles now looking for power, especially if they're regarded as too close to Britain or the United States.

"Iraq must be run by the Iraqi people alone. Even one month of foreign authority over Iraq is not acceptable. Maybe the Americans don't like the idea that the Shiite population has its own leaders," said Mullah Mohammed Redha Ali Al-Sistani, son of the gray-bearded leader Sistani. That faction is widely regarded as moderate.

Across town, through a doorway in a dusty back alley, Mullah Al-Sheikh Abas Al-Rubaiei, representative of Sadr, echoes the anti-American sentiment.

"The U.S. and British forces came to liberate us. It's good to get rid of Saddam Hussein but if they want to stay and put foreign rule in place then we will reject that and tell them to go. We cannot agree to let them stay for a long time," he said.

While seen on the streets of Najaf as a leader in his own right, Sadr who is only 23 but son of a prominent Shiite leader murdered by Saddam's regime in 1999, professes to be the lieutenant of a much more powerful but so far little-mentioned cleric, Ayatollah Kadem Al-Haairi.

Al Haairi has lived for the past 25 years in Iran and forged close ties with the religious leadership past and present, including Ayatollah Khomeini. There is no indication when he may return. Al-Rubaiei mentioned vaguely "possibly after Karbala."

Don't expect, though, to see the key stages of the power struggle to be played out in public. Most of the debate will go on within the closed confines of the Howzah, a religious council of some 2,500 leading Islamic clerics and scholars based in Najaf.

The Howzah so far has determined it does not officially wish any of its most prominent members to seek formal political office. The clerics themselves though stress it is their duty to take a major hand in shaping Iraq's social, civil and economic affairs politics by any other names.

Perhaps the difference is in perception. The clerics have no intention, it seems, of dabbling in party politics. They will continue for the time being to work with the masses building a new political future from the grassroots up intertwining Islam and the state.

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