But most sensitive to Muslims, historians say, is the city of Karbala, site of Shi'ite martyrdom during the 680 clash about who would rule world Islam. The rivalry was between the prophet Muhammad's family and the caliph in Syria, who was backed by a cadre of the prophet's followers.At Karbala, the Muslim caliph massacred the prophet's Muslim nephew, but the attack still is viewed as a sin by "unbelievers," said Sulayman Nyang, a Howard University historian of Islam.
"That [memory] is one reason the [coalition] forces have apparently bypassed Karbala," Mr. Nyang said. "You don't want to re-create any mythical revivification of that martyrdom of the past."He said that even if the coalition avoids all conflict in Karbala, or two other Shi'ite shrines nearby, a Shi'ite rebellion against the oppressive regime may arise on its own from that "historically sacred territory."
The Sunni-backed regime has persecuted Shi'ites since the founding of Iraq in 1932, but Mr. Nyang said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would even use conflict about Shi'ite holy sites to arouse world Islam against the coalition forces. "We don't want to play into his hands. Also, you don't want to prompt any emotionalism among the Hezbollah in Lebanon," he added, referring to a Shi'ite terrorist group.