ARLINGTON, Va. — Troop levels are going up in Iraq over the next few days in part to assure calm during an important Muslim event that will happen Sunday, according to U.S. commanders.

The event is called Arbaeen, which in Arabic means “40,” according to Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi, spiritual leader of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, Mich.

Arbaeen is a religious holiday celebrated primarily by Shiites, Elahi said in a Wednesday telephone interview.

Arbaeen is the end of a 40-day period of reflection that begins with another religious event called Ashura, said Elahi, who is a Shiite.

On the Muslim calendar, Ashura, which this year fell on Feb. 10, marks the anniversary of the martyrdom of Husayn bin Ali, one of two grandsons of the Prophet Mohammad.

As Elahi explained, during Husayn’s lifetime Iraq had been taken over by a corrupt despot named Yazid.

Yazid gave the people of Iraq a choice, Elahi said: Submit to his rule or be killed.

Husayn resisted Yazid, and in A.D. 632 he set off to challenge him, traveling from his refuge in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to Iraq along with 72 loyal supporters and their families.

On the plains of Karbala, the group was surrounded by 30,000 troops belonging to Yazid, and Husayn “was told to show allegiance to Yazid or die,” Elahi said.

After a 10-day standoff, Husayn, his family — including a 6-month-old baby — and his followers were beheaded, their heads mounted on spears “and taken back to the capital and Yazid,” Elahi said.

Husayn is “beloved of all Muslims, Sunni and Shia,” Elahi said.

But Shias in particular consider Husayn important, because they believe that his father, Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Mohammad, was the first of the 12 “imams” appointed by God to succeed Mohammad as leaders of the Muslim community.

Sunnis, meanwhile, respect but do not attach any special power to Ali. They have a different, and less structured, hierarchy of religious leaders.

In years past, “there used to be a million or more Muslims” making pilgrimages to the city to mark Ashura and Arbaeen, Elahi said.

But, during Saddam Hussein’s reign, the dictator banned any gatherings commemorating Husayn’s death.

“Saddam was afraid [Ashura and Arbaeen] could become anti-Saddam celebrations,” Elahi said, particularly since Saddam oppressed Shias in favor of Sunnis.

For Shias, Elahi said, Ashura and Arbaeen “historically became a real symbol of the struggle for justice and freedom.”

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