Ritual Ashura bloodletting divides Iraqi Shi'ites

BAGHDAD Wed Jan 7, 2009 3:20pm GMT

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Shi'ite men hit the heads of boys with daggers, spilling blood onto Baghdad streets on Wednesday in an annual ritual that has grown ever bigger -- and more controversial -- since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Hundreds of bloodied men and boys marched on Wednesday to a shrine in north Baghdad, one of several ceremonies at Shi'ite sites across Iraq to mark the death of the Prophet Mohammad's grandson Imam Hussein at the 7th century battle of Kerbala.

The bloodletting for the annual mourning rite of Ashura has come back in force since the fall of Saddam, who repressed public displays of worship by his country's majority sect. But not all Iraqi Shi'ites are happy.

The ritual has long provoked heated debate among the world's Shi'ites and has been banned by several clerics. Some Shi'ites say it gives the sect a barbaric image and some Sunnis have pointed to the act as evidence of Shi'ite backwardness.

Activists handed out leaflets listing the views of top Shi'ite scholars, which ranged from outright prohibition of the bloodletting, know as "tatbeer," to strong disapproval.

Opponents say the ritual violates Islam's prohibition against Muslims intentionally harming their own bodies.

But for many participants, the ritual is a profound display of devotion to the revered descendants of the prophet. They say the bloodletting allows them to feel a little of the sacrifice of Kerbala, a battle which defines Shi'ism.

"I feel no pain at all. This is for the love of Imam Hussein," said a tearful Ali Jabbour, his head bandaged and clots of dried blood in his hair and on his face.

Blood streamed down the marchers' faces and into their eyes before staining their white clothes and marking the road like rain drops, a mourning rite they said brought them closer to the Imam even though many observers said it was forbidden by Islam.

A banner displayed on the procession route supported tatbeer as a tradition once practiced by Imam Hussein's sister Zainab, whose mourning for her slain brother is a model of forbearance.

"It's a tradition. It would wound the feelings of Shi'ites (if clerics were to halt it)," said onlooker Mazain al-Thaer, adding that other religions such as some Christian denominations also observe practices that harm the body.

Some participants urged the bloody marchers on, while women gasped at the gory scene, and others condemned the spectacle.

Others ate lunch as blood dripped from men marching by.

"I don't think this is the way to show your love for Hussein. I think the world may have taken a view of the Shi'ite people as backward because of this," pilgrim Amr Jabr said.

Pilgrim Mustapha Rabiawi said he considered tatbeer to be "haram," or forbidden by Islam, but the gore did not shock him after years of sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.

Shi'ite religious festivals have often been targeted by suspected Sunni extremists, and a suicide bomber killed 35 people and wounded scores more in Kadhimiya on Sunday.

"Instead of spilling their blood in the street they should donate it, as there's a great need in Iraq," Rabiawi said.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)