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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Iraqis in Iran Mark Shiite Holiday

As they reenact battle death of the prophet's grandson, refugees wonder if a war against Hussein will enable them to go home.

March 15, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — A sense of anticipation hovered over the crowded intersection near Tehran's bazaar, the neighborhood where Iraqi refugees from Karbala, one of the holiest cities in Shiite Islam, settled after Saddam Hussein expelled them two decades ago.

They brought little with them but a spectacular ritual of commemoration, which now draws thousands to their district every year on Ashura, the most important holy day for the Shiite sect, the branch of Islam to which the majority of Iraqis belong.

Ashura, which was commemorated Friday, marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson, who was killed in 680 at a battle in Karbala, which now bears a shrine in his name.

Shiites grieve for Hussein by enacting passion plays of his death and chanting his name while beating their chests with chains -- theatrical and grim rituals enthusiastically carried out by the devout and observed as spectacle by everyone else.

This year, the refugees wondered whether they will be marking the next holiday in Iran again or whether they will be home in Karbala -- about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad -- after any U.S.-led war to oust the Iraqi president.

The Ashura ritual varies slightly by country, region and even neighborhood, and in Tehran, the grandest ceremony is that of the Karbala Iraqis. They raise an enormous black tent in the middle of a wide intersection in the district of Chahra-Ghaloobandak to symbolize the camp of Imam Hussein, which was burned during the battle of Karbala.

Thousands of Iranians and Iraqis crowd the intersection from all sides, a sea of black clothing streaming out as far as the eye can see. Men circulate throughout the crowd, sprinkling rose water.

At noon, to the reverberating wail of "Oh, Hussein," blasting from a loudspeaker and rhythmic drumming, the battle is reenacted. The Iraqi refugees douse the tent with kerosene. Towering torches turn it into an immense ball of flame.

"Saddam suffocated Islam in Iraq," a heavyset refugee in a long black tunic, who identified himself as Mehdi, said as he watched the tent burn from a third-story perch above the intersection. Mehdi worked at the shrine in Karbala before fleeing to Iran. His two brothers still sit in Iraqi prisons.

"We're waiting for the U.S. to oust him," Mehdi said of the Iraqi president. "Everyone is listening to the news, waiting for this to start. We know it's a war with Saddam, not the Iraqi people."

His friend Jawad, who escaped Baghdad 21 years ago, interrupted: "Toppling Saddam is a good idea, but will the U.S. actually do it this time? Or will they cheat us again?"

They disagreed over what should come after and argued while peering at the procession below, which had morphed into a swirling black sea of chanting voices.

Mehdi said a war on Iraq should be aimed only at toppling Hussein, not controlling or occupying the nation. Jawad worried that a transitional regime led by opposition groups would result in chaos and revenge killings.

"If the Americans don't take control at the beginning, Iraq will be awash with blood," he said.

The refugees, estimated to number nearly half a million, fled to Iran in two waves. Hussein expelled about 300,000 at the onset of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, branding those with suspected Iranian origins as the enemy. Many, like Mehdi, ended up fighting on the Iranian side.

Another wave, mainly Kurds from northern Iraq and Shiites from the south, followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Of those, an estimated 200,000 ended up in refugee camps along the border.

It was to this part of Tehran, near the bazaar, the first group of refugees came, seeking friends among those they already knew, merchants who traveled to and from Iraq. Many managed to have their possessions smuggled out of Iraq and eventually began doing business in the bazaar, selling textiles and tea.

Haji Abdullah has sold tea, saffron and dates at his shop near the Tehran bazaar for nearly half a century. His kindness has brought an endless stream of displaced Iraqis to his shop. He's heard the familiar, wrenching tales -- of running across the border barefoot, family members blown up on mines along the way -- countless times.

"If freedom comes to Iraq, I know most of them will go back," he said. Even those refugees who have evaded poverty are not entirely comfortable. Many don't have either Iranian or Iraqi citizenship and get by with refugee identification papers. Many who suffered the twin traumas of war and dislocation have never entirely recovered.

A high school teacher who identified herself as Ahlam said she still dreams of Karbala, even though she left when she was only 2. But she doesn't support a U.S.-led war.

"I'm still traumatized by the last war," she said. "That war left chemical victims. It killed my parents. It turned my friends into widows," she said.

Those with family still in Iraq hope that a war might reunite them.

Another refugee, Haddad, said her two politically active brothers were jailed by the Iraqi regime, which also expelled her and her mother.

"If Saddam goes, I'll search through every prison to find them," she said of her brothers.

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