BEIRUT // As evening fell on Saturday night in the Hizbollah stronghold of al Taibe, a village just a few kilometres from the border with Israel, a single voice rang out over the small mosque's loudspeaker, echoing through the town's empty streets.
"Oh My love, you are the moon, the light, the true hero of all of Lebanon," cried the lone poet, as dozens of young men clad completely in black gathered near the mosque for an evening of prayer, meditation and mourning to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed, at the battle of Karbala in 680. Although the Ashura ceremony is traditionally held on the 10th day of the month of Moharram, yesterday these young men, all fighters from the militant Shiite movement Hizbollah, performed their traditional prayers with their families on the ninth day of the month. This was because on Ashura, these militants were 100km north in Beirut. They were there protecting the hundreds of thousands of civilian worshippers who gather each year in the southern suburbs to participate in a parade that has become equal parts devotion to their religion and a sign of the political and military strength of Hizbollah.
One example of this melding of religion and politics is the poem read at dusk in al Taibe. Rather than mourning the deaths of Imam Ali or his son, Imam Hussein, the poet had dedicated his verse to Hizbollah's secretary general, Sayid Hasan Nasrallah, who inspires a similar level of devotion from his followers. Normally single-minded in their focus, Hizbollah's military wing seems to recognise that its pious members need to pray with their families on this occasion.
As the guards for much of south Lebanon and Beirut, the young men were also needed to patrol and protect not only the militarised border with Israel but also the estimated 500,000 worshippers who gathered at daybreak in the Dahiya, as the Hizbollah stronghold in southern Beirut is locally known. So according to members of the military wing, a compromise has been brokered: The fighters pray the night before Ashura in their villages, with their families.
In village after village throughout the south on Saturday night, these fighters could be seen gathering en masse in front of mourning tents, mosques and in one another's homes. The National was offered a rare opportunity to visit and watch these events Saturday night with the understanding that no photographs would be taken and no interviews with the secretive military wing would be conducted. The martyrdom of the Imam Hussein is of particular importance to these fighters, for it was the defeat of Hussein and his 40 followers in the battle with the Caliph Yazid's forces that ended the line of the Prophet Mohammed as the primary leaders of the Ummah. The defeat, which according to lore, occurred only because the Shiites of southern Iraq never came to Hussein and his small party's aid, turned into more than 1,300 years of oppression and second-tier status for Shiites, a defeat that continues to colour the worldview of the sect.
"The boys want to pray and mourn with their families but know they will have many duties on Ashura protecting the people," said one mid-level military commander who spent Saturday with his family in the south, and all day yesterday manning checkpoints in Beirut. "We cannot leave the border or the people unprotected, so we have our own Ashura on the 9th day, not the 10th," he added. Over the past six years, the security on such Shiite holy days has become paramount, as Sunni extremists who consider Shiite Islam a heretical cult have frequently targeted the massive gatherings of worshippers in Lebanon, Iraq, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a result, yesterday thousands of members of Hizbollah's military and security wings were in plain view monitoring the security of the gathering.
Adding to the tension was the mysterious bombing on Saturday night of a vehicle said by security sources to belong to a yet-unnamed official with the Sunni Palestinian militant movement Hamas, which maintains close ties with Hizbollah in Lebanon. Hamas officials are allowed to live in the closely guarded "security zone" in Dahiya and are guarded by Hizbollah security details. Late yesterday afternoon, Hamas admitted that two of its members were killed in the blast, while Hizbollah sources say that at least two of their men were also killed.
The ability of the yet-unknown bombers to infiltrate the most heavily guarded city blocks in Lebanon disturbed the normally unflappable Hizbollah security apparatus. Hundreds, if not thousands, of members of the military wing armed with walkie-talkies took to the streets among the hundreds of thousands of marchers to keep a close eye on the events. As the processions marched the streets of south Beirut chanting "Oh My Love, Oh Hussein," followed by the traditional thumping of chests and tears that accompany Ashura in Lebanon, exhausted Hizbollah fighters and weapons teams could be seen in their black SUVs along the perimeter of the event, eyes red from a sleepless night investigating Saturday's blast. They were there to ensure there would be no repeat bombing yesterday.
"I haven't slept in 24 hours," said one young fighter sitting in a truck, his AK-47 carefully hidden from plain sight in accordance with Hizbollah rules that ban the public display of weapons. "I was called to help protect the scene last night. After the bomb we had to order the [Lebanese] police and army out of the area so we could make sure no one came in and set another bomb." His orders in case of trouble?
"They changed after the bomb," he said. "Normally we investigate anything suspicious but after the Hamas guys were killed, they changed my orders. Now I am supposed to shoot anyone suspicious and ask them their name afterwards. But there has been no problems today." firstname.lastname@example.org