Shi'ite Muslims Observe Ashoura as Israel-Iran Tensions Escalate

The holiday, associated with the schism between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam, comes amid a series of recent attacks in Iraq, some of which have been attributed to Israel

Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims pray at the Imam Abbas shrine in the holy city of Karbala on the eve of Ashura, September 9, 2019.

Millions of Shi'ite Muslims were marking Ashoura on Tuesday, one of the most sacred religious holy days for their sect, holding rallies, prayers and self-flagellation amid soaring tensions in the Middle East.

In southern Beirut, thousands of people, carrying yellow flags of the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group, rallied in the group's stronghold where two Israeli drones crashed late last month, further raising the potential for conflict in the region.

The somber day commemorates the killing of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, the Imam Hussein, by a rival Muslim faction in Karbala in present day Iraq, in 680 A.D. Hussein and his descendants are seen by Shi'ites as the rightful heirs to the prophet. Hussein's killing has been attributed with cementing the schism between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam.

In Iraq, hundreds of thousands held Ashoura processions amid beefed-up security in Karbala and the capital, Baghdad, marching through the streets. Many of the faithful beat their chests and lashed themselves with chains in a symbolic expression of regret for not being able to help Hussein before his martyrdom.

Supporters of Hezbollah march during a religious mourning procession of Ashura in Beirut, Lebanon, September 10, 2019.
Supporters of Hezbollah march during a religious mourning procession of Ashura in Beirut, Lebanon, September 10, 2019.

In recent years, Ashoura processions have been attacked by extremist Sunni militants.

On Sunday night, thousands marched toward the holy shrine of Imam Hussein, which had been lit up on the eve of the celebration.

This year's commemoration comes amid rising tensions in the Middle East and the crisis between Iran and the U.S. and its ally Israel in the wake of the collapsing nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

Israel has recently expanded its war on Iran and its allies in the region, and is believed to have struck targets as far out as Iraq in recent weeks, drawing outrage and pledges of retaliation.

Iraqi Shi'ites gather at the shrine of Imam Abbas in the central city of Karbala, September 8, 2019.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last month that Iran has no immunity anywhere and that the Israeli military forces "will act — and currently are acting — against them."

On Monday, planes targeted posts belonging to Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border — the latest in such attacks across the region. There were conflicting reports on what exactly was targeted and how many people were killed.

The Syrian government on Monday said Israeli planes targeted a military camp that was being set up for the Syrian military and its allies. It blamed the U.S., and said the attack "crossed all red lines."