The Shia pilgrimage to Karbala, one of the most potent and symbolic in recent Iraqi history, took on a strident political and martial note yesterday with demands for the establishment of an Islamic state and threats of a jihad against the "American occupiers".
The one million people commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, were not only determined to take part in the rites banned by Saddam Hussein and his Baathist predecessors, but also to lay their claim for a Shia-led government.
Yesterday, the final prayers of the festival were different from the days that have gone before, with thousands of young men arriving from the cities of a de facto Shia confederacy, which is already taking shape.
The young men left their Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers in their vehicles out of respect, they said, for the holiness of Karbala.
But later, covered in blood from flagellation with chains and knife wounds they had ritually and frenziedly inflicted on themselves they roared their desire to avenge Ayatollah al-Sadr, murdered by the regime in 1999, and fight for a free, Islamic Iraq.
The show of strength was not aimed solely at the Americans or the Sunnis they accuse of oppressing them under the rule of the Baath party. Schisms have also began to appear among the Shias: the followers of the late Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr – who now follow his son Muqtadar – are lining up against Ayatollah al-Hakim, who now runs Karbala, and Ayatollah Ali Hamid al-Sistani, in Najaf.
Two Shia leaders, Abdul Majid al-Khoeli and Haidar al-Khalidar, have already been killed in the internecine strife at Najaf.
Ayatollah Hakim, who was supposed to address the pilgrims, failed to turn up. He was warned, said his followers, that he may be attacked.
The US military said they had foiled a plot by "a gang of five Baathists and a member of al-Qa'ida" to blow up two mosques in Karbala. Captain Jimmie Cummings said the plan was to carry out the attack during the pilgrimage.
The pilgrims included Shias from Iran. Bookstalls carried out a busy trade in tracts from Ayatollah Khomeini and hardline religious leaders in Iran who have called on Iraqis to expel the US military from their country.
In sermons, imam after imam called on Iraqis to take the destiny of the country into their own hands, and the Shia to take their "rightful place" in deciding how the country should be governed Some of the crowd carried banners saying "Bush equals Saddam", "Down USA" and "Yes, Yes, Islam".
Representatives of the Hawza, the Shia religious body based in Najaf, which is said to be co-ordinating the takeover of the administration of towns and cities by clerics, were present among the crowd.
One member, Abbas Nahidi, said: "Our job is to ensure that the people get the message of the Hawza. They should listen and act as our wise leaders advise. We are talking to all our people in our cities to plan the action.
"The Hawza believe there should be elections so people can decide who should govern us. We want an Islamic state. We do not want to be ruled by any foreign powers including the United States."
Abbas Mohammed and Ali Faraya Hamid, two teachers from Kut, said an Islamic administration has already been set up in their city. Mr Hamid said: "The Americans did nothing after the Baath fled, so the religious leaders have started to run things. We are following what the Koran has taught us. We do not need foreigners to tell us what to do."
Rashid Mutanar Rahim, a former soldier, rolled up the sleeve of his left arm to show a long scar. "I got that fighting in the first Bush war. I finished with the army because I hated Saddam. But I am prepared to take part in a jihad now against our American occupiers. I know dozens of people who feel the same way."
Yusef al-Hababi agreed."We are all prepared to take part in the jihad to
throw out the Americans. Look at the way they conducted this war."