KARBALA, Iraq – Thousands of Shiite Muslims have converged on this holy city for the annual mourning ritual known as Ashoura (search). But many would rather be celebrating their election victory.
"Happiness is in our hearts, but we can't explicitly show it because it has come at the time to mourn Imam al-Hussain," said Hassan Abdel Hadi, referring to the seventh century Shiite saint. He spoke outside al-Hussain's tomb, where he was preparing to join a procession of men beating their backs with iron chains.
Iraqis received confirmation this week that Shiites will dominate the next government. It is the first time in Iraq's history that Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, will lead the country. But the results coincided with a period of grief for them.
Saturday marks the anniversary of al-Hussain's death and for days now, Shiites have been marching through Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, beating and slashing their bodies. Walls and shops here are plastered with black banners and posters of the saint.
Muhseen Allwan, a 47-year-old baker dressed in black for the Shiite holiday, said he wished the election results had been announced earlier. The vote was Jan. 30, but getting final results was a time-consuming process because the ballots had to be counted by hand.
"I was never allowed to vote in free elections (before)," he said. "This month and the month after, we can't even hold weddings," he said as he played with his grandsons, also dressed in black.
In some ways, though, the timing was fitting.
Al-Hussain, the grandson of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, was killed in a battle for leadership of the faith. His death split the religion between Shiites and Sunnis, a rivalry that runs deep in Iraq. Shiites were oppressed for decades under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and many see their victory at the polls as an affirmation of the Shiite path.
But Ashoura has brought anxiety as well. In Baghdad on Friday, insurgents set off explosions aimed at Shiite worshippers that killed at least 14 people. Dozens were injured in the blasts, two of which happened outside Shiite mosques.
Last year during Ashoura, twin blasts ripped through crowds of worshippers at Shiite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and Karbala, killing at least 181 people. U.S. and Iraqi officials have linked the country's most feared terror leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), to those bombings. Al-Zarqawi, a Sunni, has repeatedly called for a sectarian war against Shiite Muslims, and his group's attacks on Shiite leaders appear to be intended to start a civil war in Iraq.
This year Iraqi security forces have stepped up security, including closing the country's borders beginning Friday. Iraqi police and National Guard troops have set up barricades on the main roads to prevent vehicles from entering Karbala and armed security teams were scattered all over the city.
Bakr al-Ghanimi, a security official in Karbala told the Associated Press that three Saudis and two Iraqis were recently arrested while in possession of weapons, mortars and explosives.
"The Saudis confessed that they forged passports to enter Iraq and came to Karbala to strike the city during Ashoura," al-Ghanimi said.
But the security measures have also dissuaded thousands of people from making the pilgrimage this year, leading to a dramatic drop in attendance.
Grand Ayatollah Taqqi Eldin al-Mudarisi said that last year about 10,000 Iranian pilgrims visited Karbala during Ashoura, but "this year it is very much less."
Despite the joy of elections, the fear of attacks and the slow business, religious Shiites said they will not be deterred.
"Mourning al-Hussain's death is above all, even over politics," said Jaafar Mohammed, a 36-year-old grocery owner.