Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims have filled the streets of the Iraqi city of Karbala, performing a ritual banned for decades under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The Shiite pilgrims walked and danced near the holy site of the tomb of Imam Hussein, beating their chests and chanting the name of the Imam who was killed on a Karbala battlefield 13,00 years ago.
Imam Hussein's followers waved black flags as a symbol of their mourning and green flags to represent Islam. Many have walked for days to reach the tomb of Imam Hussein where they pay tribute to his suffering by beating themselves bloody with chains, whips and swords.
Imam Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and is revered as a martyr in the Shiite branch of Islam. The ritual performed in Karbala is meant to commemorate his suffering and death in battle in the seventh century.
A U.S. military spokesman (Brigadier General Vincent Brooks) said today (Tuesday) there are estimates of more than one million people participating in the pilgrimage.
Hoping to avoid any friction with the pilgrims, U.S. troops have kept a low profile during the event and are positioned outside the city.
The regime of Saddam Hussein banned the Shiite ritual, fearing its political undercurrents. But despite the risk, many Shiites made the journey in secret.
Although Shiites represent about 60 percent of Iraq's 24-million people, they faced severe religious persecution under Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.