Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Tragedy on a Bridge

Some people call it pilgrimage. Iraqis call it a “ziara” – visit! In these zizaras, people pay homage to their divine Imams (religious leaders).

Shiites have 12 Imams as I have mentioned earlier. What most people outside Iraq don’t know is that at any given time, a ziara has anywhere between 5 and 10% of Sunnis! People, particularly country folk, take part in these activities across sectarian lines.

On that tragic day, more than a million people made their way to the shrine of the 7th Imam, Kadhim, to commemorate his death. Most people go on foot; many choose to go barefooted as a sign of devotion.

That particular bridge is called the “a-imma” bridge (The Imams’ Bridge)… as there are important Imams’ shrines on both sides. It links two northern districts of Baghdad, Adhameyyah and Kadhimeyyah, about which I had also written earlier in this blog. Both districts are ‘religious’ and traditional in character; one is predominantly Shiite, the other is mainly Sunni.

People going on foot from the eastern side of Baghdad have to go through Adhameyyah to get to the bridge. Residents of that district were outside in large numbers during the procession to offer water, food and even the use of their toilets to people going through their neighborhoods. To Iraqis, there is nothing unusual about that… but it doesn’t fit with the flat, two dimensional sectarian image of much of the media and of some ignorant bigots!

The bridge, according to the army general in charge of the security of Kadhimeyyah, was closed to all traffic. It was obstructed, for security reasons, by large concrete blocks on either side that allowed only one or two people to go through at a time. However, due to “certain pressures” that bridge was opened to the public on that particular day.

A rumor was started within the crowd that there was someone with an explosive belt or that there was a car full of explosives. People started running in a stampede. The exit being blocked, the hysterical congestion killed many against those concrete blocks, some people jumped into the river, but the congestion caused the side railings of the bridge to yield. People kept pouring; many fell to their death onto the river bank and into the water.

Was that tragedy avoidable? Naturally! Under the present precarious conditions, it would not be safe for people to converge in such high numbers for any reason. Imam Kadhim was not going to go anywhere. However, still influenced by Khomeini’s effective show of strength in Iran through demonstration of the massive bulk of the faithful, many ‘religious’ leaderships and parties quite irresponsibly encouraged people to converge to Kadhim on that frightful day! They should have done otherwise. Anyway, an enquiry is supposed to be underway. I doubt that anyone will be blamed, although the minister of health has asked for the resignation of the ministers of Interior and Defense.

More than a thousand people, mostly women and children, lost their lives.

Names Tell Long Stories in Iraq

That Imam’s full name was Imam Moussa (Moses) al Kadhim. He was generally known as “al Kadhim” (the Suppressor) because he was famous for containing his anger.

He died during the reign of Haroun (Aaron) al Rasheed (the Judicious) one of the most famous of the Abbasids Caliphs of Baghdad, the spread of the empire in whose time was so vast that he was reported to address a cloud in the sky and say: “Go where you please. Your taxes will come back to me!”

The Abbasids relentlessly fought Imam Ali’s descendents. Kadhim was reportedly poisoned in jail by Haroun al Rasheed. He was buried on the west side of the Tigris just north of Baghdad, more than a thousand years ago. The area became known as Kadhimeyyah.

Kadhim’s father, Ja’afar al Sadiq (the Truthful) was the 6th Imam in the Shiite faith and was also a religious scholar who gave the Shiite sect its philosophical and theological framework.

Moussa was not in fact Ja’afar’s eldest son. The eldest was called Ismael (Ishmael) who, for some reason was seen less fit to be the Imam. Ismael went away and started his own following in Iran and Afghanistan… hence the Ismaelites, whose head figure is the ‘Agha Khan’.

One of Imam Ja’afar’s students was a man called Abu Haneefa who went on to found Hanafism, one of the major Sunni sub-sects. Many centuries later, it became the official religious sect of the Ottoman Empire. Abu Haneefa was quite fond of Imam Ja’afar and spoke and wrote very highly of him.

Abu Haneefa was buried on the opposite, eastern, bank of the Tigris. The area became known as Adhameyyah (in reference to the title Abu Haneefa’s followers gave him: “al Imam al Adham” – the greatest Imam!)

Baghdad kept expanding through the centuries and Adhameyyah and Kadhimeyyah became suburbs of the city, but they retained their religious and sectarian flavor.

Othman Ali al Obaidi… What’s in a name?

During that disaster of a day, Othman (or Uthman) who was a young Sunni man from Adhameyyah who, with many others, kept plunging into the water and managed to save six people from drowning by pulling them ashore. The seventh was a heavily built woman who apparently pulled him down with her… and they both drowned.

People, including some Iraqis, who were ignorant of the real Iraq, were full of awe at this Sunni risking his life to save Shiites. I wasn’t. I know better. I have been trying to explain aspects of this in this blog for quite a while. This time the answer is in the poor hero’s name!

Let’s have a look at his name again: Othman Ali al Obaidi (First name followed by the father’s first name and then the surname- in this case, the name of his tribe).

Othman was the third Caliph (Successor) after Prophet Mohammed. He was a rich aristocrat and resembled everything people would call a right-wing in today’s nomenclature. He was a generous and a peaceful old man who did much to strengthen the original call of Islam. Prophet Mohammed gave him his daughter in marriage… and when she died, gave him another.

Common Shiite folks however do not generally think highly of him. He beat the more deserving Imam Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son in law to the Caliphate. More importantly, being rather tribal in disposition, Othman favored and strengthened the Umayyads, the governors of Sham (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan) - Imam Ali’s archenemies and the people who later killed his son Hussein in Kerbala, Iraq. To this day, most devout Shiites bitterly mourn the tragic death of Imam Hussein and his family.

Imam Ali is of course the Supreme Patriarch of the Shiite faith. The name Shiite actually refers to the cohorts or followers of Imam Ali.

Late Othman’s surname is al Obaidi. The Obaid (or Ubaid or Ubayd) is an Arab tribe whose ancestors came with the Islamic conquest to Iraq 1400 years ago. Most of its members settled in the Kirkuk area around 1600 AD.

Around 1750, the Obaid tribe revolted against the Ottomans. Their warriors surrounded the northern and western sides of Baghdad. Their main camp was in the area of Adhameyyah. After that revolt was quelled, many remained put. Up to the 1950’s probably around 80% of the Adhameyyah district were Obaidis!

I have met many of those people. Hala Fattah has made some interesting observations at“History News Network” about one of them she had met by chance in a library in Baghdad. The vast majority are not only Sunni, but they feel quite strongly about it. Many are proud Arab Nationalists who fought fierce battles in the 1950’s and 1960’s against the spread of Communism and against the Communist Party which became influential for a time after the fall of the monarchy in 1958. That area was so conservative that I well remember a time in the 1960’s that anyone passing through their inner streets was liable to be stopped and asked what his business there was!

Many of the Obaidis in Adhameyyah have relatives, some of them considered close kin, on the other side of the river in Kadhimeyyah… and devout Shiites. The bickering of those kin about sectarian issues is always something to witness!

During that siege of Baghdad in the 18th century, the Iranians invaded and occupied the southern city of Basra. With the Ottoman Empire rather weak at the time, people of Basra sought the help of Iraqi tribes to liberate them. A major fraction of the Obaid tribe went south to help. With them went two large, mainly ‘Shiite’ tribes. Basra was liberated. Many of the Obaid tribe settled along the route to Basra in towns and on river banks as well as in Basra itself. All, with time, became Shiites. Many maintain to this day close relations with their mostly Sunni kin in other areas in Baghdad, Kirkuk and all the way up to Mosul. All in all, about a third of the Obaidis in Iraq today are Shiites.

Othman Ali al Obaidi.

What’s in a name? Good old insightful Shakespeare! Sometimes names tell long stories in Iraq.

The weld still holds.

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