Saturday, March 06, 2004
Recent events in town have somewhat altered our daily routine. Since the 24th of February, the local population has been celebrating Ashura, an Islamic holiday celebrated annually during the first month of the Islamic year. For you non-Muslims, Ashura commemorates the death of Husain, the leader of a small band of martyrs who were killed in 680 AD, and is a time of fasting, reflection and meditation. According to tradition, Ashura participants celebrate for 7-10 days and participate in public self-flagellation and whippings, reenacting the martyrdom of Husain and his fallen soldiers. These reenactments are practiced by dozens of men at a time, with the bloody results visible to all who witness the gathering. Groups of Ashura participants have been seen congregating throughout many of the local neighborhoods or marching thru traffic with red, green and black flags held high. Although we have not been able to find out the meaning of the green and black flags, it was interesting to find out that the red flags of Ashura “should be kept flying as a sign of the emergence of the day in which there will be a retaliatory measure on behalf of the oppressed against the tyrant.” Perhaps non-Muslims? The groups can be as small as a dozen or can surge upwards of a hundred or more participants. Try to imagine 30 or 40 men marching with military precision, whipping themselves with “cat-o-nine tails” and bleeding profusely. To view the tradition is quite an experience!
Although Ashura is a celebratory Muslim holiday, outsiders (particularly westerners) are warned to steer clear of the celebrants, who have been known to attack westerners lingering too close to the gatherings. Written warnings have been passed to all CPA staff urging us to avoid any provocation of Ashura groups, if possible. A number of our CPA vehicles have had to make last minute U-turns for fear of being surrounded by Ashura participants.
Late last evening, my team accidentally confronted an "after dark" Ashura celebration in the Basra village area of As Sarraji. We were returning from a late ending mission, which we normally avoid due to the increased danger of traveling after dark. During our ride back to the CPA, we turned down a dark street and immediately drove into the path of approximately 100 Ashura participants, dressed in black and in the midst of full celebration. Locally garrisoned British troops were busy with other duties and unable to station a blockade on our particular route of travel. Thankfully, our 4WD vehicles have enough ground clearance to easily cross small curbs or medians, which is one of the recommended actions to avoid confrontation. A quick U-turn over the concrete median proved to be the best defense against potential stone throwing or other unpleasant reactions.
In conjunction with Ashura, we have experienced a dramatic spike in the number of IED's, or improvised explosive devices, found in town and along our routes of travel. Early this morning, my team drove a “secure” route south of the CPA. Shortly afterward, a second security team from the CPA departed the compound on the same route and was struck by the effects of an IED that exploded as the vehicles drove past. Luckily, the IED exploded just as the first vehicle passed by and immediately before the second vehicle crossed the primary path of the explosion. No one was injured, but the security vehicle has seen the end of its duty in Basra. You can see the effects of IED shrapnel against the thin sheet metal skin of an SUV in the picture I’ve included from this morning’s blast. None of the shrapnel penetrated the armored interior of the vehicle, and all of its occupants escaped without injury. FYI - the vehicle leader was on his 2nd day at work! Hopefully, my team will continue to avoid such incidents based on our use of additional countermeasures against such attacks. Further, our vehicles have better armored protection than the one affected this morning.