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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

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January 26, 2005

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January 25, 2005

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Wednesday, April 2

Taking Karbala Gap key to U.S. drive to Baghdad

By Robert Hodierne and Riad Kahwaji | Military Times

Updated 11:58 p.m., April 3

DOHA, QATAR - U.S. soldiers encountered minimal opposition Wednesday as they raced through the Karbala Gap - a narrow, sandy plain between lake Buhayrat ar Razazah and the Euphrates River in Iraq.

Taking the gap was vital for the U.S. military because it offers the most direct access to Baghdad, 50 miles north.

But the gap is sacred ground to Muslims, and the story about what happened there more than 1,300 years ago may offer insights into why Iraqis charged the Abrams tanks in pickup trucks.

In 680, 48 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, there was a schism over who should head Islam. On one side was Imam Hussein, the prophet's grandson. On the other was Yazid, who had a competing claim to head Islam. The two met on the same sandy plain that resounded Wednesday to the rumble of 70-ton American tanks.

In the earlier battle, Hussein and 70 followers were slaughtered by Yazid's army, which numbered in the thousands.

Hussein's hopeless battle ``was a fight against a tyrant who used devious and corrupt means to get into power," said Sheik Hani Fahs, a Lebanese Shiite Muslim authority and scholar. "All Muslim scholars believe Hussein represents the ultimate total opposition to tyranny and corruption.''

The story of a virtuous man confronting certain death in a fight against forces he considers evil may inspire some Iraqis to fight against Americans, but things are more complicated than that.

The branch of Islam that grew out of Hussein's teachings is today the Shiite branch. While most Iraqis are Shiites, Saddam Hussein is a Sunni, the other main branch of Islam.

Najaf, just south of Karbala, is the place where Imam Hussein's father, Imam Ali, is buried and where Shiite clerics and scholars are educated.

``Najaf and Karbala have always stood up against tyranny and injustice, and that's why they were often on a collision course with the tyrant regime of Saddam Hussein,'' Fahs said.

For example, he said, ``Najaf was the place from where Shiites ruled against the killing of Kurds by the Iraqi authorities.''

He cautioned, however, that ``opposing the current regime does not mean accepting a foreign occupation."

"Najaf and Karbala will continue fighting the foreign occupiers regardless of whether the regime collapses or holds on,'' he said.

Although U.S. soldiers reportedly received a friendly welcome in Najaf on Wednesday, Fahs said, ``The notion of (Americans) being accepted by the people as liberators will never be accepted.''

And he added this reminder: ``The first Iraqi rebellion against the British colonizer in 1920 started in Najaf and Karbala."