Shiites mark Ashoura with blood, denunciations of America, Israel

Wednesday, April 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) - Black-clad Shiite Muslims slashed their heads with blades and beat their chests Wednesday in an annual ritual to mourn a revered saint who died 14 centuries ago. Some vented anger at Israel and the United States.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiites in south Beirut as well as southern and eastern Lebanon marked the occasion known as Ashoura with marches and reenactments of the 680 A.D. battle in which Imam Hussein was killed.

The marches underscored divisions among Lebanon's 1.2 million Shiites, who make up the country's largest sect, and separate observances were held by the rival pro-Syrian Amal Movement and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrilla group.

In Bahrain, where Shiites form a slight majority of the Persian Gulf state's 400,000 citizens, religious songs eulogizing Hussein were broadcast on loudspeakers as thousands of black-clad men marched down the streets, beating their chests and whipping their backs with chains.

In the southern Lebanese market town of Nabatiyeh, about 20,000 marched in an Amal-organized procession. Scores of men and some women slashed their heads with swords, razors and knives. A few men cut wounds in their children's heads. Medics stood by to help those bleeding profusely or fainting.

In the former Israeli-occupied zone in southern Lebanon, several thousand Shiites marched in the towns of Bint Jbeil and Khiam. Some raised Palestinian flags. A mock Katyusha rocket launcher - the Shiite guerrillas' favorite weapon in years of battling Israeli troops - was displayed in the Khiam procession.

In the eastern city of Baalbek, about 10,000 marched in a Hezbollah procession, while a breakaway Hezbollah faction gathered about 1,000 for its own demonstration.

By far, the biggest procession was in south Beirut, the Shiite-inhabited suburbs of the Lebanese capital where Hezbollah has its strongholds. An estimated 300,000 barefoot, black-clad followers - women, men and children - marched behind Hezbollah's yellow flags and beat their chest in rhythm. Inflicting self-wounds, however, was forbidden by Hezbollah.

It was also an occasion for Hezbollah to push its own policies.

``Our enemies forever: America and Israel,'' read a banner in the procession, as participants shouted through loudspeakers ``Death to Israel.''

Hussein, the grandson of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, was killed in a battle on the plains of Karbala near the Euphrates River in what is today's Iraq. The Karbala battle, part of a dispute over leadership of the faith that followed Mohammed's death nearly 50 years earlier, was a key event in Islam's split into the majority Sunni and minority Shiite branches.

Hussein's death remains a powerful example of sacrifice to many Shiites, who make up about 10 percent of the world's estimated 1 billion Muslims.

Ashoura, on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Moharram, is observed every year in Shiite communities, including Iran, the world's biggest Shiite country with 62 million people, as well as in Bahrain, Pakistan and India. But this year, the 10th of Moharram falls a day late in Iran, according to that country's calendar.