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Shiites and Sunnis - the view from the street

Outside my window in Baghdad there's a man selling balloons from a cart. In the cold gray light of this city where people now try to blend in to stay out of trouble, the balloons stand out like a particularly garish rainbow.

It's just a one-man wooden stall, but it's a reminder of the resilience here -- not just of the balloon seller but also of the man who imports the balloons, the drivers who bring them to the markets and the parents still willing to walk down the street to buy them for their children.

That's always been one of the disconnects here -- the signs of normal life that persist in the midst of widespread violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

Long standing ties despite strife
Take, for instance, the offhand comment of an Iraqi friend telling me about her nephew's wedding this spring.

"He's Shiite and she's Sunni," she said. Not so unusual in her family or in many other Iraqi families (although she's Shiite her father was Sunni). And in her mixed neighborhood, she says, she and her Christian neighbors drink coffee together and agree that the sectarian violence raging through Baghdad is motivated by politics and money.

Yes, another disconnect. In this city where Shiite death squads disguised as police haunt the streets and Sunni insurgents set up renegade checkpoints kidnapping drivers, it still hasn't reached the level of entrenched hatred among the millions of ordinary Iraqis who have lived together and in many cases married each other for decades.

What is most striking is the rise of Shiite power. Last week more than a million pilgrims thronged the highways to pour into the holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad -- crowding the narrow streets to commemorate Ashoura and an event 1,400 years ago that defines Shiite Islam.

A day of commemoration and division
They came by foot and in wheelchairs, many of the men and boys beating themselves with chains and hitting their heads with swords until they bled. They do it in grief and atonement for the death in battle of the Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, whose killing cemented the split between Shiites and Sunnis. Swept away by the beat of drums and the fervor of the crowd, the pilgrims say they don't feel pain.

It is the most powerful thing I've ever seen, and not surprisingly, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, banned the rituals. (When I lived here in the late 1990s people conducted them only in secret.) But after Baghdad fell, when there was only a glimpse of the conflict to come, I walked in the streets as Shiites openly commemorated the rituals of Ashoura for the first time in decades

I'd heard about the festival for years, and on that day three years ago there they were -- thousands of people wielding swords and chains, beating drums, waving flags and chanting in unison. Immersed in their grief as fresh that day as it was more than a thousand years ago, the crowds were no threat to anyone.

But when we got closer to the holiest Shiite shrine in Baghdad, the chanting was drowned out by the sound of an explosion. As trucks carrying bodies sped by my Iraqi colleagues, I kept going until we arrived at the mosque where a suicide bomber had detonated his belt in the courtyard.

An ancient ritual. An ancient rivalry. The marble was covered in blood.

The imam was sobbing -- in rage and sorrow and disbelief. But that kind of modern-day violence was all new then.