What are they doing?
They're marking al-Arbe'ein, or forty days after the Ashoura, the date on which the death of the Prophet's grandson Hussein was killed in battle at the site of present-day Karbala. A slash in the head is made and then the wound is hit so the blood splatters and spreads.
So...here's what's being said today about the Shi'ites and their role in the future of Iraq.
The WaPost says that US planners are surprised by the strength of the Shi'ites:
The burst of Shiite power -- as demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands who made a long-banned pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala yesterday -- has U.S. officials looking for allies in the struggle to fill the power vacuum left by the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
As the administration plotted to overthrow Hussein's government, U.S. officials said this week, it failed to fully appreciate the force of Shiite aspirations and is now concerned that those sentiments could coalesce into a fundamentalist government. Some administration officials were dazzled by Ahmed Chalabi, the prominent Iraqi exile who is a Shiite and an advocate of a secular democracy. Others were more focused on the overriding goal of defeating Hussein and paid little attention to the dynamics of religion and politics in the region.
"It is a complex equation, and the U.S. government is ill-equipped to figure out how this is going to shake out," a State Department official said. "I don't think anyone took a step backward and asked, 'What are we looking for?' The focus was on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein."
Complicating matters is that the United States has virtually no diplomatic relationship with Iran, leaving U.S. officials in the dark about the goals and intentions of the government in Tehran. The Iranian government is the patron of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the leading Iraqi Shiite group.
From the Ottawa Citizen:
Now Mr. Saddam is gone, and power resides temporarily with the U.S. and allies occupying the country -- "Christians" in a word: aliens. And the Shia vividly realize they make up three-fifths of Iraq's population.
"Democracy" to many of them means "Islamic democracy" -- i.e. rule by the tribe or group that through its numbers or its access to weapons is in a position to control the others. For the mullahs now taking control of towns and villages, from Baghdad to Basra, many carrying the psychological scars of collaboration, are not likely to be contemplating any sort of power sharing with the displaced Sunni Arabs whose symbol was Mr. Saddam; nor with Kurdish, nor Turkomen, nor Assyrian Christian "infidels." They were ruled by a minority and now they intend to rule the minorities. The rhetoric of the demagogues arriving from the Iranian-sponsored SCIRI -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- is deliciously attractive to them. The alternative of Western-style, constitutional democracy, with strict separation of mosque and state, must seem a joke -- something designed for some other culture..
The Shia underground is resurfacing, and in many places joining forces with SCIRI agents leaching into the country -- who were, after all, exiled Iraqis, not Persians. (The SCIRI leaders tend, as the Iranian fanatics of 1978-79, to be physical cowards. They send their minions first to stir up the crowds, as the Khomeinists did from France and elsewhere, but will not enter the country themselves until they think it is safe to do so. Whereas the "pro-Western-style democracy" leadership of Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress has been on the ground in Iraq for weeks, and has already lost one of its own Shia leaders to assassination.).
While SCIRI ardently promised the allies that they would participate fully in the U.S.-led reconstruction effort, and accept power-sharing under the umbrella of Mr. Chalabi's INC, they lied. First they refused to participate in the initial U.S.-organized meeting of diverse Iraqi interests in Nasiriya last week. Now it is clear they were plotting from the beginning to foment another Shia uprising, not before, but after the Americans had taken out Mr. Saddam. Their intention is to test U.S. resolve, and if it fails, to achieve a theocratic state, on the Iranian model. They are going about it in precisely the same way Ayatollah Khomeini went about it..
Michael Leeden blames it all on Iran
But the true audacity of Tehran lies in their political moves. The Iranians have infiltrated more than a hundred highly trained Arab mullahs from Qom and other Iranian religious centers into Iraq, especially to Najaf and Karbala, the holy cities of the Shiite faith. They are poisoning the minds of the (largely uneducated) Iraqi mobs with a simple slogan, repeated five times a day in the mosques: “America did it for the Jews and for the oil.” They are also distributing cash to the Iraqis.
Just as they did against the shah, the Iranian Shiite leaders intend to build a mass following, leading to an insurrection against us. Look carefully at the banners carried by the Shiite demonstrators. They are very clean and well produced, with slogans in both Arabic (for the Iraqis) and English (for Western media). That is the Iranian regime at work, one of the most brilliant and patient intelligence organizations in the region. The slogans chanted by the mobs in Baghdad are Iranian slogans, calls for an Islamic state. It may seem fanciful to suggest that our liberation of Iraq could be transformed into a pro-Iranian regime applying sharia law, but after all just last year our negotiators permitted the creation of an Islamic Republic in Afghanistan.
An outline of the major divisions with Shi'ite Islam
A Who's Who of Shi'ite leadership in Iraq
What happened today in Karbala, including a call to reject US presence by the brother of the guy who, according to this, has said he would cooperate with the US
And here, a mostly informative discussion thread on the whole issue.
Finally, ShiaPundit weighs in
Well, not finally:
The U.S. Marines who seized control of this city near the Iranian border more than two weeks ago still have not dared enter the mayor's office. That is the domain of Sayed Abbas Fadhil -- and for now, he is untouchable.
Fadhil, a portly Shiite Muslim preacher turned farmer who has proclaimed himself the new mayor of Kut, insists his ascension to high office has been blessed by the city's religious leaders, teachers, lawyers, doctors, municipal workers and just about everyone else around, save for American troops and those who were part of ousted President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
In case his claim of popular support does not deter his eviction, he has welcomed into mayoral compound several hundred young men who have vowed to defend him if the Marines try to remove him by force.
"We thank the Americans for getting rid of Saddam's regime, but now Iraq must be run by Iraqis," Fadhil thundered during a meeting today with his supporters in the building's spacious conference room. "We cannot allow the Americans to rule us from this office."
In a country where seemingly everyone with influence and connections is seeking to fill the leadership vacuum left by the downfall of Hussein and his once-omnipotent Baath Party, Fadhil's claim to be mayor of Kut is perhaps the most audacious attempt yet to grab power. Unlike Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi, the Iraqi exile who has declared himself governor of Baghdad but remains holed up in two downtown hotels, Fadhil has set up shop in an official building and appears to have rallied support across this city of 300,000 people.
He also has been doing more than issuing what he considers official pronouncements. Some of his followers have started police patrols and set up checkpoints on roads out of Kut. Others have fanned out to hospitals, mosques and schools to inform residents that Fadhil is the new boss in town.