International Herald Tribune on Wednesday, January 15, 2003
Neil MacFarquhar The New York Times
KARBALA, Iraq – The Shiite Muslim clan that oversees the gilded shrine of Abbas, where officials of Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath Party were hanged during the rebellion against President Saddam Hussein after the last Gulf war, decided recently that Iraq’s ruler might need reassurance that no sequel was under consideration.
So 50 of them sent him an oversize petition written with their blood.
“We declare that we will volunteer to defend our victorious Iraq and its holy land,” read the flowing, five-centimeter (two-inch) high maroon script in part. “We give you our commitment as loyal men to stand behind the banner of ‘God is Great,’ to stand against the evil West, the infidels and international Zionism.”
Ever since that last uprising, Saddam has tried to buttress his popularity across southern Iraq, the heartland of the country’s 55 percent majority Shiites. The region holds vast oil fields and Iraq’s limited gateway to the sea and is generally considered his most vulnerable point in the event of an American-led invasion.
On one hand, Saddam has bestowed favors, donating, for example, gold and silver to slather across the domes of the Shiites’ holiest tombs. Meanwhile, senior clergyman deemed insufficiently subservient have either died under mysterious circumstances or disappeared.
The south of Iraq bears a passing resemblance to its famous shrines: golden accolades to the government shimmer on the surface; underneath, everyone suspects, are the cracks and the festering wounds of a population who feels that its time is long overdue.