Monday, November 14, 2016

The Six Battles of Karbala

The Arba'een pilgrimage to Karbala has  been underway since 10 October.  It will grow in number rising to perhaps more than 25 million people a few days before America’s Thanksgiving.   It is the largest annual religious pilgrimage in the world, bigger than the Haaj to Mecca, and, dwarfing the ‘Way-of-Saint-James’ pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  The pilgrimage is in mourning of Husayn ibn Ali (sometimes called Hussein), the grandson of the prophet Mohammed.  The vast majority of the pilgrims will be Shia, but a small percentage will include Sunni, Christian, Yazidi, Sabaean and others.  The Vatican has sent delegations in the past, and perhaps Patriarch Kirill of Moscow will send a delegation also.  Most pilgrims walk 85 kilometers (~52 miles) over several days from Najaf.  Some walk in crutches.  Some will walk all the way from Basra.  Many will come from India, Africa, Europe, southern Russia, Central Asia, and the Americas.  There will also be smaller versions in London, Toronto, Dearborn and Los Angeles.  The one in Karbala itself will be a major target for Daesh or other Salafists, and maybe the overseas ones will also be targets of terror.  I wonder if the Iraqi Army and Iraqi state sponsored militias will hold off on using more units in retaking Mosul until after Arba’een is over so they can provide security in Karbala and Najaf?  Or conversely, will they perhaps try to speed up Mosul Ops to declare victory before Arba'een is ended?  But I don't believe they have enough time to do that before the 20th.
It all started with the Battle of Karbala.  Not the latest one in 2007, when the Mahdi Army clashed with gunmen of the Badr Brigades.  That fight was essentially a power struggle between Muqtada al-Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki as to who would provide security for the pilgrims from the danger of Salafi jihadist bombers.  They and their followers essentially went to war with each other for the honor of who would be the ‘Defenders of the Faith’.

Not the one in 2003 when the 3rd Infantry Division and supporting armor and air fought the Medina Division in the Karbala Gap and the 101st Airborne took the city itself from the Fedayeen Sadaam and foreign volunteers and mercs.  An American strategic deception operation had been put in place to convince Sadaam that the 4th Infantry Division would assault northern Iraq from Turkey.  That deception apparently worked as Qusay Hussein ordered many of the Republican Guards to be re-deployed from Karbala to the north of Baghdad.  Lt. Gen. Ra'ad al-Hamdani, who commanded the Karbala Front, protested and presciently predicted Baghdad’s quick fall because of Qusay’s order.

Not the one in 1991 when the Medina Division shelled Karbala with tanks and artillery for a week in order to suppress Shia uprisings.  They destroyed entire neighborhoods, killing thousands.  That was one of the incidents that led to Operation Southern Watch which imposed a useless No Fly Zone below the 32nd Parallel.  That NFZ was ineffective because there were no friendly units on the ground below it to keep Sadaam's ground troops or attack helos from persecuting the Shia again.   The NFZ over the Kurdish regions in the north worked much better as the Peshmerga could counteract Sadaam's ground actions.

Not the 1849 siege by the Ottoman army in order to reassert the Sultan's authority over the city.  They killed approximately 15% of the city population.

And not the 1802 sack of the city  by 12000 Wahhabis.  They killed a few thousand residents, ransacked Husayn's tomb, and needed 4000 camels to carry home the loot.

The original Battle of Karbala took place over 1300 years ago in the year 61 of the Islamic Calendar (680 CE).  Husayn, his family and a small group of followers were defeated by a several thousand man Syrian Army of the Umayyads.  Husayn and at least 72(?) were beheaded.  14 of the 72 were liberated slaves including a Christian, John bin Huwai, who died fighting for Husayn.  The name the “Prince of Martyrs” has long since been a title given to Husayn.  That battle has been made the subject of a historical religious movie by award winning Iranian film director Ahmad Reza Darvish.  It has English subtitles.  Darvish also had help from major British film studios and Academy Award nominated Indian film editor Tariq Anwar.

There are also scores of videos on YouTube showing more detail on the actual Arba'een pilgrimage walk.  One worth seeing IMO (and less than four minutes long) is


  1. Thank you for the posting. No bombs yet at Husayn's shrine but there was one foiled attempt in a village to the west of Karbala. And no bombs here in LA, but a suicider killed dozens at a celebration in Kabul.

    In Pakistan we called it Chehelum.

  2. The thing I find most compelling about the 61AH event, mike, is the by-now-usual-to-me question of eyewitness accounts. A brief perusal of the internet says that the primary source for this First Battle of Karbala is something called the Maqtal al-Husayn (Arabic: مقتل الحسين‎‎), written by one Abu Mikhnaf (more properly "Lut ibn Yahya ibn Sa'id ibn Mikhnaf Al-Kufi") (لوط ابن يحيٰ ابن سعيد ابن مخنّف الكوفي ). This author is recorded as passing away in 157AH, or almost a century after the actual event. Give him the benefit of the doubt and let's assume that he lived into his eighth or ninth decade, which puts his likely working period back in the late Seventh Century CE (say about 80-110AH) which is still 20 years AFTER the events of Muharram 10, 61AH...

    Now. An event of this import would not have been easily forgotten, but, me about something that happened 20 years ago? I can tell you that I would have a hard time recalling all the details of that event...

    And I note also that we don't have any of the original manuscripts attributed to Abu Mikhnaf; the four extant copies are all the work of his student Hisham ibn al-Kalbi (Arabic: ابن الكلبي‎‎) who lived into the Ninth Century CE...

    So; again...not trying to say that this event didn't happen; it very obviously did. But what I find fascinating is the degree to which we in modern times speak confidently about an event that is has been transmitted to us through such tenuous and often fragmentary means...

  3. anon - Thanks for your comment. I was beginning to think that nobody gave a rat's a$$.

    I read somewhere that in addition to police that there were 10,000 Hashd al-Shaabi militia providing security for Karbala pilgrims. No wonder that attempted bombing was stymied. I understand that today is the last day of Ashura, but all those millions of pilgrims have to get home, so the danger to them from terrorism is not over yet.

  4. FDChief -

    You are probably right re: Abu Miknaf. But even modern historians are not eyewitnesses to events. Many historians say that eyewitness accounts of battles are many times flawed as they see only a small portion of what transpired. And back in those days storytelling was the way history got handed down. He may have heard from several or even many witnesses. A quick look at Wikipedia's entry on Aby Miknaf shows that his paternal uncle was present at the Battle of Siffin that was 23 years earlier than events at Karbala.

    And Karbala is certainly not the only event that "has been transmitted to us through such tenuous and often fragmentary means.

    And if a little bit of myth was injected as part of the storytelling, that is OK with me. Most history of course is written by the victors. There may be a few crums of myth involved not only in Karbala, but also in Thermopylae, the Alamo, Camarón & Wake Island that captivates the psyche of all people regardless of culture.

  5. Like I said, mike; no question that this event happened. But if I've learned anything from my "battles" series at GFT it's that what we think we know about events that occurred in places and times prior to mass literacy is typically WAY more definite than is justified by a look at the original sources. A lot of ancient military history was transcribed by people with no military knowledge or experience, so events with a very low "military probability" were recorded as fact.

    Karbala was so straightforward as to escape the most common confusions, contradictions, and outright errors found in many pre-modern manuscript history. But I was simply reminded that a LOT of what we believe we know of the events in our collective past is often based on a very thin tissue of memory...

  6. I won't argue with that Chief. I think it is true even for modern events regardless of modern historians access to division sitreps, after action reports, ships logs or interviews of participants.

    The scope of these battles is too big to put in a book. Perhaps only a squad firefight could be documented without error? Or a small boat action or single aircraft to aircraft dogfight? But even there something will usually be missing unless both sides are covered.

    What I do like about your historical battle posts is that you quote sources from both sides when available.

    1. I think the difference is in scale. Industrial-age warfare is fought on an immense scale, largely because of industrial-age logistics. Armies in the hundreds of thousands can be supported in the field for extended periods of time. The pre-moderns just couldn't do that.

      So even with things like telegraphs and radios and television and portable cameras and reporters all over the place and literate soldiers and officers and politicians writing about their own and others' deeds, words, and thoughts you end up getting a very fragmented view of any particular part of these massive wars. general, you get a pretty good "big picture" of what happened. Order logs and maps and after-action reports and casualty lists and logistical records can be layered on top of war diaries and letters and newspaper reports to get a fairly-decent "bird's-eye-view" of everything from company-size engagements on up to ginormous army-group-size tussles.

      The small stuff, squads and platoons? Not so much. But even a lot of the contradictory reports can be reconciled by taking onto account points-of-view and report bias. I'd argue that for a LOT of modern-era (I'm calling this pretty much anything post-1850ish) events we can reconstruct the actual happenings pretty well simply because we have so MANY primary sources.

      The problem with pre-modern era warfare is that all that "stuff" just...doesn't exist. If you're lucky you can find a scattering of individual accounts or a half-dozen secondary reports of the event. Once you get much earlier than the printing press, so pre-1500s or so, you're even worse off because of the problem with manuscript copyists. That and in a LOT of traditions the old "If the story contradicts the facts, print the story" thing holds you have to sort out the things that were just plain made up because they were such a terrific addition to the story...

      Great example; Pope Urban II's famous speech at the Council of Clermont, November 27, 1095.

      This speech is pretty much generally accepted as the "official" start of European crusading. We know that he gave it, we know that the Europeans responded...but...supposedly the great battle cry of the Western Crusaders was first uttered on this day; Deus vult!" - "God wills it!" - made the welkin ring and was picked up and carried all the way to and over the walls of Jerusalem four years later. Right?

      Or...maybe not. We have five versions of this pep talk. First of all, all of them were written at least four years later, after the subsequent fall of Jerusalem to the First Crusade, so it's hard to be sure what Urban really said and what was retconned after the successful campaign.

      Four of the five generally agree that Urban talked about the problem of feudal violence in Europe, of helping the "Greek" Christians (whose emperor, Alexi I Comnenus, had asked Urban for assistance); and about the crimes being committed against Christian pilgrims and residents in the Holy Land.

      But. Only one of the five records the utterance of the now-famous battlecry of the Crusaders...

      Did it happen? Did it happen then and there, as we remember it? Well...if you go back to the primary sources there's only a 20% chance that it did.

      So you get my idea.

  7. Can this be true? Georgie Bush's main man in Baghdad attacked in Karbala by his co-religionists:

    Good on them I say.

  8. Looks like the Salafis finally got a shot in at Arba'een with a truck bomb near Hilla. They killed 80 pilgrims on their way home from Karbala.

    A reminder to never let your guard down against these murderers.

  9. The Reuters link:

  10. 125 dead at Hilla vs the 80 initially reported.

  11. Worth remembering that it is our shame that we first used these jihadis for our own geopolitical ends in Afghanistan, then ignored them once the Soviets were defeated, then smashed the secular regimes that helped hold them in check, such as Saddam's.

    The salafis are a symptom rather than the disease; a symptom of the unresolved schism in Islam between the modernists and the medievalists, and our inability or unwillingness to distinguish between the two has helped them immensely.

    Mind you, I don't expect that to change; it didn't in eight years of Obama, who is an order of magnitude smarter and more geopolitically clever than the next President and his coterie of crusaders, boobs, and grifters...

  12. FDChief -

    We do have a knack for choosing the wrong friends and allies and shooting ourselves in the foot.

    Turkey, a NATO country, is now a jihadi haven and (once again) a hotbed of ethnic cleansing.

    Saudi Arabia, the exporter of Wahabbism.

    Iraq's parliament has just passed the Hashd Law, which formalizes the Shia militias as part of Iraqi security structure. Supposedly they will be separate from the Army and report directly to the PM. An Iraqi IRGC or Basiji perhaps? Or worse the brown and black shirted paramilitaries of Europe back 80 plus years ago?

    1. I think that it's more a case of terminal short-sightedness; we aren't good at thinking "long term" or developing the sorts of deep foreign experience that good empires need to manage their relationships with both enemies and clients. We do "short term"; that's the American Way - solve the immediate problem and if that "solution" leads to problems down the road, well...hell, I'll be out of office by then so who gives a shit?

      Iraq is a perfect example. Anyone who'd spent any sort of time paying attention knew that 1) it was essentially a "failed state" held together by a ruthless Tikriti kleptocracy, and that if you knocked off the Saddam regime that a) the "country" would effectively devolve into three major sectarian divisions and b) the probability of any sort of effective rule outside of an openly brutal military autocracy was somewhere between unlikely and "fucking impossible", and 2) any sort of realistic alternative - if even possible - would take decades and mountains of blood and treasure.

      Now the Shia have decided to become the new Saddam, complete with their own "fedayeen Saddam" in the form of the Shiite militias. Yeah, duh. That was pretty much written in stone from the moment the first scouts crossed the LD in 2003.