Ashura Threats Heighten South Lebanon Security

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Various commercial establishments also expressed the Karbala spirit: Shops were united in black, so were gas stations and vegetable stands, which displayed sayings uttered by Imam Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Amal Khalil

Published Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Rumors abound that the Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh and other areas in the country’s south might be on the receiving end of bloody political and confessional messages from takfiri groups during the commemoration of Ashura. However, thousands from all over the country are still expected to visit the area to participate in its famous Ashura rituals.

In Nabatiyeh, black mantles are hung from balconies, and banners reading "O Hussein" are draped from roofs. Various commercial establishments also expressed the Karbala spirit: Shops were united in black, so were gas stations and vegetable stands, which displayed sayings uttered by Imam Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.

As the Hijri month of Muharram approaches, the sound of Ashura laments and chants become part of the daily ritual in the streets. Some shops and stands open up temporarily to sell Ashura supplies. It is not merely the people, the political parties, and the local committees that participate in this setting, the municipality and some official institutions use their authority to raise banners in public spaces.

The scene is repeated every year. Some of the elders believe the city embraced its identity since the first Husseini club was established in Lebanon by Sheikh Abdul-Hussein Sadek in 1909 after studying Sharia in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq.

These types of clubs became known as husseiniyahs, derived from Imam Hussein, which focused on reviving the memory of the Imam’s martyrdom in Karbala through recounting the event. The small club grew and turned into the religious edifice that overlooks the main public square in Nabatiyeh, called Ashura Square.

The city's elders say an Iranian going by the name of al-Mirza brought the current Ashura rituals to Nabatiyeh, where he had fled from the Shah of Iran. He introduced the mourning assemblies and the reenactment of the Karbala battle.

The commemoration grew and developed, sometimes negatively. The ritual of slitting the forehead with sharp objects, which is known as "beating Haidar," started to appear. Blood was spilled to console Hussein and his family, whose heads were chopped off. The ritual became a yearly attraction for foreign media.

But will the blood spill this year at the beat of groups like al-Nusra Front? "It's a sacrifice for Hussein," said the old woman, cutting short the question on whether her participation in Ashura will be affected by the security threats. The 60-something woman was "hoping for death at the altar of Ashura."

But her insistence on participation despite the threats is opposed by others who have succumbed to the fear and chosen to stay home and watch the Ashura commemoration on television, instead of going to the husseiniyah and risking their lives.

A security source revealed to Al-Akhbar intelligence regarding a serious threat to this year’s Ashura as a spillover from the Syrian crisis. He reviewed dozens of documents collected by Lebanese, Western, and UNIFIL intelligence in the past months, which suggested that Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra are serious about their threats to send a message during Ashura, due to its significance to Shia. The documents illustrated several types of attacks: car bombs, explosive belts, and remote-controlled devices.

Reacting to this threat, the head of army intelligence in South Lebanon, General Ali Shahrour, called for a meeting with security officials in Hezbollah and Amal in the region to coordinate security measures, which would accompany the Ashura commemoration starting today. The meeting put the final touches on the two Shia parties' months-old plans to address threats by extremist groups.

Starting Sunday, November 3, the army will deploy its units until the end of the commemoration on November 17. It is expected to take strict security measures and set up checkpoints for thorough inspection of pedestrians and cars, especially at the entrances leading to Nabatiyeh, Tyre, Bint Jbeil, Haret Saida, and the vicinity of mourning assemblies and processions. In the smaller towns and villages, Hezbollah and Amal partisans will assist the municipal police.

Sources following up on the Ashura preparations indicated to Al-Akhbar that Hezbollah and Amal are taking the threats of al-Nusra and ISIS seriously. Yet these security developments have not led to a reduction in the number of planned assemblies and processions. The leaderships of the two parties decided to increase the number of activities, especially in Shia cities and towns, "delivering a message of defiance to ISIS, al-Nusra, and similar threats."

The sources maintained that the Ashura plans for both parties' security leaderships divided Shia areas into several levels. First, there are the majority Shia cities like Dahiyeh, Nabatiyeh, Tyre, Bint Jbeil, and Baalbeck. Then come the mixed towns and those that host many Syrians, especially regime opponents. The third level is the coastal areas close to the entrances of Palestinian refugee camps, especially in Haret Saida and Tyre. The fourth is the border area, where Syrian opposition fighters could infiltrate, from Shebaa Farms to Baalbeck-Hermel, through the Shia villages of West Bekaa.

In the south, Hezbollah distributed leaflets asking citizens to take "precautionary measures" during the Ashura fortnight, including to avoid gathering next to husseiniyahs before and after the assemblies and not to carry anything unnecessary, such as women's handbags or copies of the Quran and other books, which could be boobytrapped.

Security Vs. Trade

For the past five years, Nabatiyeh's husseiniyah has been hosting the Iraqi Mohammed al-Fali to recite at the assemblies in the first 10 days of Ashura. However, Fali is considered an enemy of takfiri groups, which could be an additional reason to attack the husseiniyah in the city, especially since he is on a death list in Iraq.

The multiple threats and security measures came as a blow to local business, which had been on the decline since the attack in Roueiss in Dahiyeh. "We cannot ask them to reduce the measures because peoples' lives comes first," said the head of the Nabatiyeh Merchants Association, Wassim Badreddine.

However, the measures will have the worst impact on the Monday Market and the bean and corn stalls that are usually spread in the vicinity of husseiniyahs.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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