Pilgrims flood Karbala on final holy day
KARBALA, Iraq (CNN) -- Crowds of Shia Muslims Wednesday chanted and danced in the streets of this holy city on the final day of a pilgrimage long suppressed under Saddam Hussein's rule.
Many expressed gratitude to the United States for their newfound freedom but, in the same breath, they warned their liberators to leave Iraq and not divide their country.
Karbala is where Muslim martyr Imam Hussein bin Ali -- grandson of the prophet Mohammed -- was killed and entombed more than 1,300 years ago.
The faithful Shia began the day with a traditional call to prayer; then many took part in a ritual self-flagellation, some cutting their scalps with swords as they chanted. Others slapped their chests with their hands in a symbolic act of self-flagellation.
Several men had faces and shirts soaked with blood.
Small groups of women in black robes made their way through the throngs of men in the city square, joining them in chanting, clapping and beating their chests.
According to historical accounts, Imam Hussein was killed in a battle near Karbala, where he was overwhelmingly outnumbered by Yazeed's army. Yazeed was competing with him to head the Islamic religion.
The pilgrimage to Karbala is, in part, atonement for the failure of the pilgrims' ancestors to come to Hussein's aid. It celebrates the end of the 40-day Ashura period honoring Hussein's martyrdom.
Wednesday's march follows a call for a U.S. troop withdrawal issued by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Tehran-based group that wants to see the establishment of an Islamic state.
"We need our independence," the statement said. "We reject foreign rule, and Iraq will not be fertile ground for any foreign rule."
The group called for free elections and urged Iraq's Shia Muslim majority to follow their lead.
CNN's Nic Robertson said the message to the United States from many of the pilgrims in Karbala was, "You have done your job, now leave."
A physical education teacher making the pilgrimage from Baghdad told Robertson he will follow the political views of his religious leaders.
Chants of "No to America, no to Israel, no to the devil" gave way later to chants of "Death to America, death to Israel."
Some of the pilgrims walked from Baghdad, making the 60-mile trip on bare feet. At least one man crawled in deference as he approached Hussein's tomb.
More than a million pilgrims had gathered in Karbala, a city of about 750,000, by Tuesday, said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of U.S. Central Command.
The martyrdom of Hussein carries a significance for Shia similar to Christ's crucifixion, according to GlobalSecurity.org, an international security group.
For decades, Saddam and his Baath Party prevented pilgrims from entering Karbala. Travelers said security troops fired on pilgrims walking from Najaf to Karbala, according to the U.S. State Department's 2000 report on religious freedom.
Saddam is a Sunni Muslim, the minority Muslim sect in Iraq.
The pilgrims are "participating in something that would not have been possible before," Brooks said Tuesday. "And thus far it has occurred without any significant incidents."
-- CNN Correspondent Karl Penhaul contributed to this report.