Baghdad, Iraq As Shiite Arabs observe their most significant and distinctive annual holiday, they stand at a critical juncture, one marked by potential peril and once-unimaginable opportunity for their sect, long considered second class in the Sunni Arab-dominated Middle East.
Ashura, the 10-day ceremony that culminates today and marks the run-up to the seventh-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, has leaped in importance in the Arab world since the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni regime.
"Ashura is the marquee event of Shiism," said Vali Nasr, a scholar at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and author of "The Shia Revival."
Near the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, where he was felled in an A.D. 680 battle that hardened the rift between Islam's two major sects, boys as young as 7 marched Monday with green headbands and black robes. Blood splattered on the streets around the shrine complex housing the remains of Hussein and his brother, Abbas, as young men whipped their backs raw and gashed their heads with swords.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around Iraq as well as Iran and other countries braved Iraq's violence-plagued roads for the annual observance.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, in the southern Beirut stronghold of the militant Shiite group Hezbollah near the Hay Abyad mosque, young men handed out sweets to passers-by. Old men and women wiped tears from their faces as they recalled the demise of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, killed in battle by a Sunni tribal leader named Yazid.
Shiites believe Hussein and his descendants were robbed of their birthright in a succession dispute that defines the ongoing conflict throughout the Middle East between Shiites and Sunnis.
The story of Hussein continues to drive Shiite hopes and fears, including in Lebanon, where the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hassan Nasrallah's Hezbollah militia economically devastated the country's Shiite plurality and intensified a domestic political struggle that has left dozens dead and injured in recent days.
"In every age, there is a Yazid and a Hussein," said Mohammad Jaafar, 21, a Shiite university student.
"The leaders of arrogant states like the United States and Britain as well as their agents here in Lebanon are the equivalents of Yazid," he said. "The resistance led by Sayed Hassan (Nasrallah) represents, on the other hand, the true path of Islam: that of Imam Hussein."
For centuries, Shiites communities were considered an underclass in Arab countries, oppressed by powerful and wealthy Sunni leaders, even where Shiites constituted a majority as in Iraq and Bahrain, an island country in the Persian Gulf. While Iran is predominately Shiite, it was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that produced the Arab world's first Shiite-controlled country.
The effect throughout the Middle East and beyond has been electrifying. In Sunni-ruled Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where Shiites until recently were barred from celebrating Ashura, Shiites pressed for more rights. In Saudi Arabia, Shiites demanded they be granted to the right to celebrate Ashura in the open. The Saudi government nervously complied.
Shiite demands for rights have upset the centuries-old balance of power in the region but also created new democratic openings in autocratic Sunni regimes.
But the emergence of Shiite Arabs as a significant player on the world stage has been riddled with conflict. Sunni Arabs often refuse to embrace Shiites as fellow Arabs, sometimes deriding them as Persian agents.
Signs of Sunni rejection of Shiite Arabs abound.
Sunni extremists bombed a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra in February, a tipping point in Iraq's sectarian civil war. Sunni clerics have issued edicts against Shiites. Jordanian King Abdullah II has warned of an emerging Shiite crescent stretching from Shiite Iran to the Mediterranean Sea. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has said Shiite Arabs were more loyal to Tehran than their own nations. And, as he stood at the gallows, Saddam cursed his executioners as "Persians."
Shiites "went from a high expectation and enthusiasm for having a very positive future to a feeling of being in a state of siege," said Nasr.
"This kind of anxiety is playing mind games with the Shia ... It has shifted the power from the moderates to much more radical elements."
Those include anti-U.S. Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Hezbollah "resistance" movement and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has set his nation on a collision course with the West in his push to attain nuclear technology.