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A Visit To Karbala, The Bustling Heart Of Iraq's Shia Revival

Shias holding their evening prayer in the holy sites of Karbala, Iraq
Shias holding their evening prayer in the holy sites of Karbala, Iraq
Georges Malbrunot

KARBALA — Inside the shrine and mosque covered by mosaics, the crowd is rushing to touch the silver edge of the martyr's tomb. Among the crowd is Manjour, 37, who came all the way from Gurajat, India, to honor his "leader," Al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali, the third Shia imam.

Even as fierce battles and terror attacks have plagued Baghdad and Mosul to the north, millions of pilgrims travel here each year from across the Muslim world to pay homage to Imam Husayn, next to whom lies the remains of his eldest son, Ali al-Akhbar, and 77 other martyrs of the battle of Karbala in 680, the starting point of the Sunni-Shia war that continues to rage 14 centuries later.

Across from the Imam Husayn Mosque stands the great mausoleum of his half-brother Abbas in Karbala, a city largely dedicated to its glorious Islamic past. "Husayn and Abbas embody courage," says Mohammed Rahim, an Iranian who is visiting Karbala for the seventh time. "They are examples we have to follow."

Each year, an estimated 30 million Shia pilgrims flock to the holy city of some 1.1 million residents. Two religious foundations oversee the two mausoleums like mini empires. And though a lucrative activity, it is out of question for the corruption-plagued government of Baghdad, even though it is Shia, to get involved in the foundations' business.

"With 6,500 employees, we are like a small nation that works quite well, without corruption," says young Ayatollah Sheikh Ahmad Safi, who runs the Abbas mausoleum foundation. "All the investments we make are without the intervention of Baghdad. Iraqi politicians sometimes come to see us and ask us for advice, but they never follow them."

His foundation only receives 10% of the donations and taxes collected by Shia clergy for Karbala sanctuaries. The Husayn foundation receives 80% of the donations, making it the most valuable religious foundation of the Shia community. In Karbala, pilgrims and honeymooners alike can stay in one of several newly built resort hotel. A major new airport, named "Imam Husayn," is set to open between Karbala and the neighboring holy city of Najaf, with the capacity to welcome 20 million passengers annually. It is part of a network aiming to link key Shia religious destinations in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan and India.

The growth in Karbala is a kind of revival

The Husayn foundation is spreading its influence globally in other ways. In January, it opened an office in Paris, while a Koranic Sciences center has opened in Indonesia and a cultural center in Denmark. It also publishes a trimestral French-language revue called Renaissance ("rebirth").

The activity reveals the current state of mind of Iraqi Shias: "Karbala was partly destroyed by Saddam Hussein's Army after the uprising of 1991," recalls Riad al-Hakim, son of a top Shia cleric imprisoned between 1983 and 1991 before fleeing to Iran. The current power and growth of Karbala is a form of revival, with hopes that it can become a new hub of the "Shia Axis' that spreads from Iran to Lebanon through Syria.

Outside the Husayn Mosque, hundreds of women wearing chadors are waiting in the scorching heat to come inside. Under tight security, every worshiper must go through a meticulous body search to get close to the tomb. For a good reason. These huge religious gatherings are a target for ISIS, the Sunni Islamic terror group, which Shias are now actively combating.

"Our men fought in the battle of Mosul," says Ahmed Rida al-Khafaji from the militia of Husayn mausoleum, which numbers 3,500 soldiers.

Milita fighters receives a $750 monthly paycheck from the Kafeel Society, which manages the foundation as an empire. Such daily products as Kafeel Yogurt, Kafeel Cola and Kafeel Water are provided by the society. But Kafeel also controls the trade of weapons with Iran.

Imam Husayn Mosque in Karbala Photo: Larry E. Johns SFC

A few miles away from the city center stands the organization's latest pride: a brand new hospital ranked as the fifth most modern in Middle East. The healthcare facilities include 220 beds, and brings in top doctors from all over the world, from Australia to India to France. A surgeon, showing off a state-of-the-art U.S.-made MRI machine, notes that the hospital received patients from marginalized minority Shia communities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Karbala's institutions, however, have a complex relationship with the world's leading Shia nation, Iran. Teheran has made several donations in recent years to renovate the mausoleums, but a kind of rivalry is never far. The holy Iranian city of Qom is constantly fighting to impose its supremacy on the Shia world, and disputes over religious doctrine are common. Alaa, an Iraqi philosopher, says the disagreements run deep. "We refuse the Iranian government system based on the supremacy of religion over the temporal dimension," he says. As many of Iraqis, Alaa considers himself as an Arab Shia, not a Persian one.

A guide in Karbala notes that most Iranian pilgrims do not speak Arabic, and describes the Iran-Iraq relationship in the Shia sphere as "bittersweet" throughout history. More recently, Iran has focused on ensuring the security of their own compatriot pilgrims in Iraq, who tend to stay in their own hotels and spend Iranian currency.

In nearby Najaf, another Shia holy city, Sheikh Ali al-Boudeiri admits that "both Iran and Iraq share interests, but the political price is paid only on our side." He denounces what he calls the "two faces' of Iranian policy in Iraq: The first one, more obvious, consists in trade and exchanges; The second face is more hidden, aiming at a general control of Iraq. That, in some fundamental ways, would begin at the holy sites in Najaf and Karbala.

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