/ 27 January 2009

Iraq’s Shi’ites in voting vs religion controversy

Thousands of Shi’ite Muslims in southern Iraq are wrestling with a choice of religion or democracy before a pilgrimage that could prevent them from voting in an upcoming election.

Pilgrims from the southern city of Basra are setting out on an arduous walk hundreds of kilometres long to the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala, far from the election centres where they are registered to vote on Saturday.

”Kerbala is more important than voting, and so far I haven’t seen any candidate that deserves my confidence. I still have no job after the last election,” said Mohammed Ali, one of a group of pilgrims at a roadside tent.

Elections to Iraq’s powerful provincial councils fall on January 31, and the pilgrimage culminates around mid-February.

Many of the pilgrims come from even farther away than Basra, which is 400km from Kerbala.

The pilgrimage marks Arbain, or 40 days of mourning for the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein, a central figure in Shi’ite Islam who was slain in battle at Kerbala in the seventh century.

Pilgrim tents bedecked with flags and blaring religious chants have sprouted across the Shi’ite south of Iraq, providing food and shelter to weary travellers.

Some said they were determined to vote and would return home without completing a full pilgrimage, or would drive back to the spot on the road where they left off to go vote.

The controversy over voting versus religious ritual has drawn in Iraq’s hugely influential Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who heads the Shi’ite clergy, or Marjaiya.

”We’re going to walk as far as we can, then come back. The Marjaiya says we have to vote, so we vote,” said pilgrim Mohammed Ibrahim as he sat inside a tent.

A volunteer rubbed ointment into one pilgrim’s knee and the smell of food wafted from giant pots in the back of the tent.

”It’s worth coming back so we can change the way things are in Iraq,” said Riyad Ali, another pilgrim.

Democracy has catapulted Iraq’s majority Shi’ites to power since the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 ended years of minority Sunni rule under Saddam Hussein.

But many Shi’ites were disappointed by what they said was little improvement in their lives since previous polls in 2005. Iraq was almost torn apart in 2006/07 by sectarian bloodshed between Shi’ites and Sunnis that saw tens of thousands of people killed in shootings and bombings.

As the violence begins to recede, Sistani has called on Iraqis to cast votes this Saturday to ensure competent officials are elected.

”Sistani urges the Iraqi people to go to the ballot box to vote before the pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Hussein,” a source close to Sistani’s office said. — Reuters