SHAFAQNA – Huge crowds of Shiites gathered in Iraq and Lebanon Tuesday to mark a key holy day in defiance of jihadists from the Islamic State group.
Police and troops were out in force as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims massed in the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala to commemorate Ashura.
Tens of thousands more rallied in Beirut, where the head of the Shiite militant Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, pledged “victory” against the Sunni extremists of IS.
This year’s marking of the day has taken on new meaning after IS seized control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.
The jihadists consider Shiites heretics and have targeted them in deadly attacks, including bomb blasts in Baghdad on Sunday that left at least 18 dead.
This year’s commemorations are “about defying (IS) because they declared their hostility and made threats to kill Muslims and bomb the cities and holy shrines,” said Saad Jabbar, 54, who came to Karbala from Dhi Qar province in the south.
The commemorations mark the killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by the army of the Caliph Yazid in 680 AD, which helped solidify the divide between what would become the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.
– Self-flagellation ritual –
A small minority of Shiites mark the day with a self-flagellation ritual called “tatbeer”, cutting their heads with swords and spears in mourning for the imam.
Hundreds were seen on the streets of Karbala with blood flowing down their heads and over their white robes after the ritual self-harming, which has been condemned by some Shiite clerics.
Thousands dressed in black took part in a ritual run to the shrine of Imam Hussein, before men on horseback re-enacted an attack on his camp, setting fire to a tent that collapsed in a sheet of flame, sending a dark cloud of smoke rising over a massive crowd.
There were no reports of attacks against the pilgrims in Iraq by midday Tuesday, after more than 25,000 members of the security forces were deployed in Karbala itself and thousands more in Baghdad and along routes to the city.
In Beirut, Nasrallah told supporters in the city’s southern suburbs that Sunni radicals, known as takfiris, “have no future”.
“These takfiris will be defeated in all areas and countries, and we will feel honoured that we played a role in their defeat,” he said by video link.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into neighbouring Syria to fight alongside the troops of President Bashar al-Assad against the mainly Sunni rebels battling his regime.
Beirut’s southern suburbs — a Hezbollah stronghold — have seen a string of deadly attacks, many of them claimed by jihadists, since the group started sending fighters to Syria three years ago.
“We want to win the final victory… so that the region does not fall into the hands of beheaders… and rapists,” Nasrallah said.
IS declared a “caliphate” in areas under its control in June, imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law and committing widespread atrocities.
Concern over the rise of IS prompted Washington to form a coalition of Western and Arab nations that has carried out a barrage of air strikes on its positions in Iraq and Syria.
In Syria, the strikes in recent days have focused on the besieged town of Kobane on the Turkish border, where local Kurdish militia have been holding off an IS offensive for nearly seven weeks.
At the weekend the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia defending the town was reinforced by about 150 Iraqi Kurd peshmerga fighters with heavy weapons.
– 93 Syrian Kurd hostages released –
The jihadists were reported Tuesday to have released at least 93 Syrian Kurds from Kobane who were kidnapped in February while en route to Iraq.
About 160 Kurds were abducted at the time and the hostages were being held in the Syrian IS stronghold of Raqa, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based monitoring group said it was unclear why some of the hostages had finally been released.
The highly visible battle for Kobane has absorbed much of the focus on Syria in recent weeks but on Tuesday French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for more help to also be given to rebels in the country’s second city Aleppo.
Fabius said that the coalition should not battle IS to the exclusion of supporting rebels fighting Assad’s regime.
“After Kobane, we must save Aleppo,” Fabius said in an article published in several newspapers.
“The city is almost entirely encircled,” Fabius wrote of the rebels in Aleppo. “The regime is seeking to destroy the resistance through cold and hunger.”
Rebels seized most of the east of Aleppo in July 2012, confining government forces to the west, but they have come under renewed assault in recent months.