Blocked by tour buses disgorging streams of passengers, cars approaching the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra slowed to a halt. Normally unflappable in even the worst traffic, my driver Dhia slapped the dashboard. "What they couldn't do with soldiers in the war, they're doing with religious pilgrims!" he snarled.
"They" were Iranians. One of the untold stories about Iraq are the Shia pilgrims that have poured into the country since its liberation, eager to visit sites sacred to their faith. U.S. officials have long worried that this flood of devotionalists--up to 3,000 a day, by some estimates--provided perfect cover for criminals, terrorists and Iranian agents. This Persian influx has alarmed other countries, as well: in a recent Washington Post interview, Jordan's King Abdullah warned that "one million" Iranians had crossed into Iraq. Perhaps, in part, to allay these fears, on December 22, Iran closed the border, citing "security threats" to pilgrims entering the country. But it doesn't matter now: the armies of Shia faithful have already transformed Iraqi into something no one, a few years ago, could have expected.
During my time in Iraq this year, for example, I watched my Baghdad hotel segregate its bar with an interior wall so not to offend Iranian diners, for whom alcohol is forbidden. Other hotels and restaurants created alcohol sections, or ceased to serve booze altogether. Many hotels simply turned themselves into Iranian-only establishments. (Interestingly, these hotels were generally the safest from terrorist attacks, since Americans and foreigner workers did not congregate there.)
Beyond Baghdad, changes were even starker. Along with tour buses, a common sight in Najaf and Karbala were dozens of guides holding small flags and speaking through portable loudspeakers as they shepherded their charges toward various mosques and shrines. Instead of the all-black abiyas favored by Iraqi women, you saw blue or purple chadors--often decorated with white polka-dot or flower patterns--worn by Iranians. Religious knick-knack sellers addressed you first in Farsi and initially offered change in Iranian rials. At the religious festival of Ashura in Karbala last March, I was surprised to discover that Iranians comprised most of the millions of pilgrims flooding the city.
Sometimes, this invasion worked to my benefit. People assumed I was Iranian--good for disguising an American identity. Once, when buying fruit in Karbala, the grocer treated me rudely--and I spoke to him in English. "Amrikiyya?" he smiled, eyes widening. Evidently, the only people less popular than Yanks were Iranians. And no wonder: along with the normal complaints about tourists, Iraqis grumbled about wealthy Persians buying property in Karbala and Najaf and driving up rents. Hotel rates had tripled.
For the Shia, Iraq is the veritable Holy Land. Six of their twelve holy Imams are buried there. Their third most sacred site (behind Mecca and the Dome of the Rock) is the Tomb of Ali in Najaf (the site, as we recall, of fighting between U.S. Marines and al-Mahdi militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr.) Situated outside the city is the Valley of Peace--an enormous cemetery comprising millions of graves, including Abraham's and Isaac's; people interred in this necropolis, many Shia maintain, enjoy an express pass to Paradise. For its part, Karbala is the resting place of Ali's son, Hussain, and the site of the 7th century battle that split the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.
Pilgrimage is big business. Indeed, some Iraqi's believe that al-Sadr twice seized Najaf this year in part to control the lucrative trade in religious tourism, including the so-called "corpse traffic" into the Valley of Peace. By the same token, though, Sadr's disruption of these enterprises weakened his support amongst Najaf's merchants, leading him to withdraw from the city.
Then there are, as always, the Iranians. Because Saddam ruthlessly suppressed Shiism, the sect's theological center became the north-central Iranian city of Qom. Nowadays, however, Najaf is reasserting itself as the traditional focus of religious learning, as well as a more important pilgrim site. Qom's diminishing status may have incited one of the most spectacular assassinations in Iraq. In August, 2003, a massive car bomb in Najaf killed Ayatollah al Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Many Iraqis whisper that Sadr was "contracted" by his Iranian paymasters to whack Hakim, in large part because SCIRI was running an illegal pilgrim trade--$50 a head--and cutting into the flow of money to Qom. (It's typical of many Iraqis to speak of their spiritual leaders as if they were Mafioso.)
Once it resumes, will this this cross-border traffic absorb Iraq into a pan-Shia confederation, as King Abdullah fears? I doubt it. Too many differences between the nations exist: Iraqis are Arabs, Iranians are Persian. Iraqis are not religious fanatics, nor foolish enough to relinquish their government to Iranian mullahs--especially when they see what Khomeini-style leadership has brought to Iran. Lastly, there's Iraqi pride: "Throughout our history," a journalist once told me, "our people have exported religious doctrines. We do not import them."
Chances are, even with the pilgrim trade and Iranian trouble-making, Shia-run Iraq will remain its own player, anchored in the clerical "Quietism" championed by Ayatollah Sistani, in addition to the traditions of its Mesopotamian past. Still, in the not-too-distant future, when Western tourists return to the Land Between the Rivers, it might behoove them to learn not only Arabic, but a little Farsi, too.