U.S. military preps for Muslim new year celebrations
January 19, 2008
FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELTA, Iraq — With the Islamic new year celebrations culminating Saturday, the U.S. military will step aside for festivities but remain on the lookout for an escalation in violence.
Ashoura is an Islamic religious festival celebrated by both Shiites and Sunnis.
However, Shiites also make an annual pilgrimage to Karbala and many engage in self-flagellation, beating themselves with whips, clubs, chains and even knives to draw blood. The ritual is held to honor Ali Hussein, a martyr thought to be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. Hussein was killed in 680 while fighting to overthrow Caliph Yazid.
“They want to get rid of the guilt they feel for not defending Husayn at his martyrdom,” said Lt. Col. Peter Baktis, 50, of Brooklyn, N.Y., the 18th Military Police Brigade chaplain.
“It’s their vicarious way of suffering with him. They get themselves into a frenzy — a real frenzy.”
Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein didn’t allow the practice under his rule, but it resumed in 2003 after Saddam was toppled from power. A year later, however, the Shiite pilgrimage was marred by bomb attacks that killed and wounded hundreds.
The U.S. military is hopeful history doesn’t repeat itself.
In some cases, particularly in Shiite areas around Karbala and other parts of southern Iraq, units scaled back missions this week or returned to home bases by 3 p.m., U.S. military officials said.
“Coalition forces acknowledge and respect that holiday,” said 18th Military Police Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Bernard McPherson. “But we don’t let them know what we’re going to do. You really don’t want to be caught up in the middle of that, so we give them their space.”
He said the forces were not concerned about the Shiites hurting themselves, but rather the possibility of crime while the celebrants are off guard.
“We’re more worried about criminal opportunists like al- Qaida and some Sunnis who might want to take advantage of the holiday period,” said McPherson, 51, of Orangeburg, S.C.
The Iraqi army will take the lead on securing the commemoration, he said.
Baktis says this week’s operational slowdown was meant “for us not to be in the middle of the festivities,” but added it’s crucial for the entire coalition to protect worshippers.
“Some of it has to do with not disrupting the population. Roads are more crowded with people moving to go to Karbala,” he said. “The concern is safety, and to make sure the pilgrims are secure and it’s not an opportunity for al-Qaida.”