The great Muslim city of central Iraq is the place where al-Husain, Prophet Muhammad's grandson, was martyred in AD680.

Al-Husain had claimed the right to rule the Muslim world but his tiny army was surrounded in the desert and massacred by a rival claimant, Yazid.

The dispute cemented the greatest schism in Islamic history between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Every year Shias express their collective guilt at failing to prevent al-Husain's death in public demonstrations of self-flagellation and penance.

And more than 1300 years later, visitors to Karbala can still sense the righteous indignation that Iraqi Shias have been deprived of their rights.

First by Yazid, then by Saddam, and now by the Americans.

Religious centre

Karbala is an awe-inspiring place. The tomb of al-Husain, adorned with a gilded dome and three minarets, dominates the city and is a place of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims.

It is believed great spiritual rewards are obtained by visiting the graves of the prophet's grandson and his relatives. Hundreds of thousands come from all parts of the world all year round.

The Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr
opposes the US occupation

One year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Karbala seems a safer and friendlier place than Baghdad.

There aren't the daily explosions that you hear in the capital and its environs. And you don't fear for your life if you go out after dark.

The city's vehicles and streets are everywhere adorned with images of al-Husain, as well as those of Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani and the anti-occupation cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Yet despite the greater appearance of normality compared to Baghdad, Karbala's recent history is replete with suffering and turmoil.

Mass graves

In the past year, 10,000 corpses have been found in mass graves in and around the city. Proof of Saddam's brutal crackdown on dissent, the gruesome discoveries are expected to be the tip of the iceberg.

One of Karbala's most prominent residents, Husain al-Shahristani, symbolises that suffering.

Saddam's chief nuclear scientist in the 1970s, al-Shahristani was imprisoned after he refused to cooperate with an increasingly militaristic programme.

He was subsequently kept in solitary confinement for 10 years in Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, and was horribly tortured during his incarceration.

Humanitarian cause

Al-Shahristani returned to Iraq last year after 13 years in exile in Iran and London, and now runs a humanitarian agency – IRAC - to help the needy in southern and central Iraq.

Hussain al-Sharistani was
tortured under Saddam Hussein

Like many people in Karbala, the former scientist says Iraq is a better place than one year ago, and recognises the role the Americans played in bringing about that change.

But he now feels the US has turned from liberator to oppressor.

"The Americans are denying the people of Iraq their democratic rights," he said.

"What we have is a hand-picked Governing Council composed of exiled opposition groups, while local Iraqis have been deprived of a voice. The Americans can't establish security in the country because of this.

"The former expats don't have the right understanding of local conditions. They are there to please the Americans. For local Iraqis it is as if aliens have come down from another planet and taken over their country."

Toleration

Al-Shahristani believes there is a lot of hate towards the Americans in Karbala, but the occupiers are tolerated rather than openly despised.

"At the beginning the people were willing to forgive and forget previous American betrayals, especially when they failed to protect Iraqis during the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein.

"After the invasion there was a lot of goodwill and cooperation. But now people have seen that America plans to mould the government to their liking and to take it out of the control of the locals.

"The recently signed Interim Constitution is undemocratic because it ensures a three person presidential council can have veto power over decisions. Iraqis believe the Americans want to get economic and security agreements signed before direct elections so that they cannot be vetoed."

Moreover, al-Shahristani said the story of Karbala since the invasion is a good example of how the Americans are subverting the new Iraq.

Contradictions

"Karbala organised itself very well after the invasion. It had its own protection force composed of trusted locals and there wasn't a single incident during the major religious occasions.

"They installed a senior Baathist to head the police force, in contradiction to their own stated policies. The mayor of Karbala is also a hated Baathist and he can hardly move without protection"

Hussain al-Shahristani,
IRAC, humanitarian agency

"The US then dismantled that force because it wasn't answerable to them, arrested the leaders and kept them in prison without charge.

"They then installed a senior Baathist to head the police force, in contradiction to their own stated policies. The mayor of Karbala is also a hated Baathist and he can hardly move without protection."

However, al-Shahristani bristles at the suggestion that, despite the rhetoric, Iraqi Shias are "collaborating" with the US-led occupiers.

Democratic rights

"Shias are not cooperating with the Americans - they are passively resisting" he said.

"If you ask people on the street who speaks for them they will say Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani. And al-Sistani has been critical of American plans for Iraq and has said he will refuse to meet the UN representative al-Akhdar Ibrahimi if the UN endorses the new Interim Constitution."

He added: "It is true that Shias are not killing American soldiers like in other areas but we don't have to kill Americans to get our democratic rights. And I think by taking this stance, al-Sistani has won the moral argument."

Nevertheless, despite the dissatisfaction with foreign rule in Iraq, al-Shahristani is hopeful about Iraq's future.

"All this talk about a civil war between the Shias and the Sunnis betrays a misunderstanding of conditions here. There is so much inter-marriage between the two communities that people shouldn't talk about the divisions in the stark terms they do."

"We have been living together for thousands of years and we don’t need a foreign occupation force here to keep the peace. National identity and self-determination are strong forces in Iraq. The sooner the Americans leave the better."