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Karl Penhaul: Pilgrims crawling, going barefoot

CNN correspondent Karl Penhaul
CNN correspondent Karl Penhaul

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KARBALA, Iraq (CNN) -- Exuberant Shiite Muslim pilgrims surged Tuesday into the central Iraqi city of Karbala, reviving a religious tradition that was not allowed under Saddam Hussein's rule.

Religious leaders said the crowd could reach several million by the peak of the observance Wednesday. CNN correspondent Karl Penhaul is there and filed this report:

PENHAUL: People have been walking for days to get here. Some have come barefoot, others have come crawling on their hands and knees. Others have been beating themselves in penance with metal chains or even cutting their heads.

One man I spoke to set out from his house 18 days ago. That was before Saddam Hussein's government actually fell. He set off in the hope that he would get through and his wish has come true. That wish has been the same for many years. The majority of Iraq's Shiite Muslims haven't been permitted to come here freely before. Saddam Hussein only allowed limited gatherings here.

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They come here to pay homage at the shrine of Imam Al-Hussein -- a Muslim martyr killed more than 1,300 years ago and revered by Iraq's Shiite majority. In many ways it has become a festival atmosphere here, a celebration of new-found religious freedom.

But at the same time, there's a second message -- a message to U.S. and British forces. Pilgrims here are saying "thank you" to coalition forces for ridding them of Saddam Hussein, but they are also saying "please leave Iraq" -- to be free to set up the kind of government that they see fit and to choose their own leaders without any outside influence.

The Shiites here make up about two-thirds of the nation's population, so they will be major players in whatever new government is set up. The clerics themselves have said they don't want any central political office. But they have said however that they want influence in social and civil changes. They don't see themselves as office-holders -- they see themselves working at the grassroots level and bringing about change that way.

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