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Shi'ites face new fears 3 years after US Iraq war

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, Mar 20 (Reuters) The U S-led invasion of Iraq has enabled Shi'ite Muslims to celebrate their faith without fear of Saddam Hussein, but three years on the prospect of civil war has forced some to do so behind closed doors again.

Hundreds of thousands of Shi'ites observed a major religious ritual in the southern sacred city of Kerbala today, banned by the former president who feared that huge crowds posed a serious threat to his rule.

Amid tight security, many marched for days from their hometowns to attend Arbain (40th day) in Kerbala, where they waved black and green flags to mourn the dead in a 7th-century battle that sealed a schism in Islam between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

But some Shi'ites preferred low-key rituals, staying home in Baghdad to avoid violence that turned similar events into carnage, including a bombing that killed 171 people in Kerbala and Baghdad in 2004.

''Last year we cooked a lot on the street. This year we just cooked a small bowl and we sent several dishes to neighbours. I might be shot at or even killed now if I do that openly,'' said Maki Salih, a 29-year old contractor, as he prepared dishes of rice and stew normally served to the poor on the anniversary.

''Today is the anniversary of our tragedy. Today is when the real death march of Iraqis started. Saddam, who secretly killed people, has been replaced by those who kill in public.'' Iraq's 60-per cent majority Shi'ites celebrated when U.S. tanks, warplanes and troops toppled Saddam's regime, accused of torturing and killing members of their community, who faced prison, or worse, if they held major events like Arbain.

DASHED HOPES After the invasion, they quickly began marching along Iraq's streets flailing themselves and carrying traditional black and green flags, scenes that were unthinkable under Saddam's Sunni-dominated rule.

These days, fear of Saddam's intelligence agents has been replaced with the threat of Sunni Arab insurgent violence. Suicide bombings and shootings have killed thousands of Shi'ites in post-war Iraq's bloody chaos.

Hassan Abbas was seven when he started preparing food for the Arbain ceremonies and he is still grateful that he can openly enjoy rituals without being harassed. But sectarian bloodshed has left the 41-year-old cook in despair.

''I can freely cook rice and stew but I feel bad about what is happening in my country. It is devastating,'' he said.

Police have discovered bodies dumped along the streets of his district of Shula in northwest Baghdad, scenes that are becoming increasingly common in the capital.

Some Shi'ites can only hope they don't get swept up in the carnage. Sunnis accuse the Shi'ite-led government of running deaths squads, a charge they deny, as tit-for-tat sectarian killings push Iraq towards a full-blown sectarian conflict.

Qassim al-Tamimy, 42, a real estate agent, directs his anger at U.S. troops and Iraqi politicians, who are still struggling to form a unity government that can avert civil war more than three months after parliamentary elections.

''We had poison when the occupiers invaded Iraq but at least we got rid of Saddam. We are satisfied that we are free from our chains but miserable over occupiers that caused chaos,'' he said.

''Politicians just look for their own interests and turn their back on the miseries of poor Iraqis. The same picture is being repeated again.'' After Shi'ites finish mourning Imam Hussein during Arbain, they say they are likely to keep mourning more losses in their community, which has been drained of the optimism of 2003.

''We were happy that Saddam went. But now we are afraid again to mention we are Shi'ites or to talk freely,'' said Salih, the contractor.

Reuters SY DB2134

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