CHICAGO – His brothers in Iraq are trekking on foot to pay homage to a Shiite saint, lost among the throngs of pilgrims who walk for days each year to reach the Shrine of Imam Hussein in the southern city of Karbala. This year, Ali Meshal is not with them.

Like scores of other Shiites, Meshal, 40, who works in a tobacco store in Bradley, Ill., journeyed instead to a smaller shrine dedicated to Hussein’s sister in Damascus, Syria. Traveling to Iraq is simply too dangerous, Meshal said.

“In the Shia religion, (pilgrimage to) Karbala is a big, huge thing for us,” Meshal said. “Karbala is heaven. But I couldn’t fly. It’s not safe to drive. I couldn’t get to Iraq so I stayed in Syria.”

Meshal read with concern reports of dozens of pilgrims slain Tuesday by a suicide bomber in Hillah, a way station on the road to Karbala. Like other Shiites here, he said he is bracing for more attacks by Saturday, the holy day of Arbaeen, which marks the 40th day of mourning the death in battle of Hussein, the prophet Mohammed’s grandson, in 680 A.D.

“I’m afraid any day something could happen to my family,” said Meshal, whose three brothers are making the 45-mile trek to Karbala from their homes in Najaf.

While Sunni Muslims also revere Mohammed’s grandson, Shiites have elevated Hussein to sainthood. Shiites make annual pilgrimages to his shrine and mourn his death with wailing and self-flagellation, rituals Sunnis don’t observe. The crowds of Shiites marching to Karbala thus become easy targets for Sunni insurgents.


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