Shiites Mark Holy Day In Iraq

Close to 100 Shiite pilgrims have been killed and dozens wounded this week by a spate of bombings in Baghdad and the holy Iraqi city of Kerbala. The violence comes as millions of pilgrims flock to the city to mark the 40th day after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam. The pilgrims culminated their journey Friday with gatherings in both cities.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

To Iraq now, where close to 100 Shiite pilgrims have been killed this week and dozens wounded by a spate of bombings. The violence comes as millions of pilgrims flock to the holy city of Karbala. They're marking the anniversary of the 40th day after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.

And today is the culmination of their pilgrimage with gatherings in Karbala and Baghdad, where NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from the shrine of Kadhimiya.

(Soundbite of a cantor)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kadhimiya is where the grandson of Imam Hussein is buried. In Arabic, the nickname of his shrine is Bab al-Hawaj or the Gate of Wishes.

While millions of Shiite pilgrims made their way this week to Karbala, where the faithful cut themselves with swords and flagellate themselves with chains and whips, in Kadhimiya this morning, the scene was more subdued. Those who came here today asked the Holy Imam to make their wishes come true.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lining the street leading up to the shrine are small kiosks where free food and drink is handed out to the pilgrims. It's considered a sacred duty to feed those coming to commemorate the day. It also proves that you are worthy of your wish being granted.

We spoke to more than a dozen Shiite pilgrims about what they were hoping for this year, and it provided a snapshot of a country in transition. Where before people simply hoped to survive another day, now they dare to ask for things that are more long term.

Twenty-year-old Ali Juwad Kadam(ph) hands out small biscuits to passersby.

Mr. ALI JUWAD KADAM: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, by doing this, it means that I get a wish. My wish is to graduate from college and get a job, he says. That is the wish of any young man in Iraq today.

Despite improved security here, there is little economic progress. Unemployment is still extremely high, especially for young men coming out of university. Some 30 percent of them won't find jobs despite their qualifications.

Nearby, outside the shrine, a mother in a long black veil clutches her son's hand. Thirty-nine-year-old Nadya Hamid(ph) wants her son to do well in school.

Ms. NADYA HAMID: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: My wish is to get him to succeed this year in his exams, she says.

In Iraq, according to the U.N., more than five million people are illiterate. Since the U.S. invasion, Iraq's schools have struggled to teach a population buffeted by war and displacement.

Mr. ASSAD ABDUL RIZAQ(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A grizzled 45-year-old Assad Abdul Rizaq(ph) says his wish is for Iraq's once fertile lands to come back.

Mr. RIZAQ: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, I want Iraq to be even better than before. Now we have no industry, no agriculture.

Since the beginning of human habitation in this area, agriculture has been the mainstay of most of the population, but in recent years, Iraq has faced a severe drought following decades of war and sanctions. Now, Iraq imports most of its food.

Maintaining security still tops many people's wish list. The twin bombings today in Karbala only emphasize the continuing risks here. Surveying the crowd of pilgrims, policeman Khalid Hudare(ph) says he hopes God and the imam will finally get rid of sectarianism in Iraq.

Mr.�KHALID HUDARE (Policeman): (Speaking foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, we wish for God to keep people away from explosions. We hope we will be allowed to finally live in peace. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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