Hundreds of thousands of Shia worshippers from all over southern Iraq converged here yesterday at one of the sect's holiest shrines, in a deliberate display of political and religious strength.
In Baghdad, a political springtime of a different kind is bursting out. They cannot yet mobilize in such impressive numbers as the Shia, but political parties which have not been allowed to operate legally for decades are hastening to set up shop again.
"We are back," said Faris Faris, a member of the central committee of the Iraqi Communist party, as he watched comrades embracing each other on a Baghdad pavement beneath red flags and a banner saying "A free country for joyful people".
The party has taken over an abandoned and looted building in a city suburb formerly used by the mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's security police, which had offices, safe houses and interrogation centers all over the city.
Old graffiti still cover the inner walls. "Always keep the enemy in your sights and don't let him get behind you," says one. "We've not yet had time to paint it out," said a smiling Mr Faris.
"We are the oldest political party in Iraq," he added. "We had two ministers in the Ba'athist government from 1973 to 1979, but Saddam turned on us. Thirty-four leading members were hanged and 70,000 ordinary members were arrested, went into exile, or left the party. A few underground members remained in Baghdad and they have been coming out today to greet our return."
Other parties are also squatting in deserted premises of the old regime. The Liberal Democratic Movement has taken over the building formerly used by the Union of Iraqi Students. The National Arab Democratic Movement is in a cultural center.
Ahmad Chalabi, who heads the US-funded Iraqi National Congress, has set up in one of Baghdad's top country clubs, the Hunting Club.
Most Iraqis are too young to remember the period before the Ba'athists seized power in 1968, and in the new climate of unexpected freedom all parties are beginning with vague calls for democracy and national unity, embracing Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Kurds. But they are faced with a pressing decision on whether to cooperate with the US efforts under Jay Garner, a retired general, to put together an "interim authority" or transitional government.
The communists refuse to take part. "Some people want Iraqis to bow down to foreigners. Others are like us and think we should build an independent national government on a temporary basis made up of all parties," Mr Faris said.
The main opposition to US plans comes from the Shia religious leadership. Known as the al-Hawza al-Ilmiya, which means the supreme seat of Shia learning, it has already assumed power as a kind of shadow government for the 60% of Iraq's 24 million-strong population who are Shia.
It began with orders to stop the looting, and for people who had stolen property to return it. Now it is moving directly into politics. On the outer wall of the Imam Hussein mosque in Kerbala, a poster from the Shia clerics says no one should organize marches or join a political party without their permission.
As Shia pilgrims marched to the holy city in huge columns yesterday to mourn the death in a battle at Kerbala in AD680 of Imman Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, many said they wanted Iraq to be ruled by religious leaders. "Only an Islamic party can represent us in government. We want a president from al-Hawza," said Qusay Sabri, as he dried himself on the banks of the Euphrates after a cooling swim.
Scores of other men were resting on the river bank halfway through the 50-mile walk from Baghdad to Kerbala. "If the United States prevents us having a religious leader as president, we will reject it. If al-Hawza orders us to turn ourselves into bombs, we can make the US leave Iraq. We say 'Thank you for getting rid of Saddam. Now goodbye'," a pilgrim said.
On the outskirts of Kerbala, Umm Zahra was standing by her front gate with a group of women dressed in long black dresses and veils. "I want an Islamic president," she said. "Only an educated clergyman can give us peace and security. We want the US troops to go."
Despite their wish to get foreign troops out fast, more people in Kerbala than in Baghdad spontaneously wanted to thank the US and Britain for toppling Saddam. The Shia south suffered some of the worst repression of his rule.
"Please tell Mr Blair 'God bless him'," said Abdullah Ganin, 34, an English teacher from Najaf. "If Bush wants to become a Muslim, he will enter paradise for sure," said a middle-aged man.
Asked whether Iran was a good model, where religious leaders came to power in a wave of national unity after toppling a dictator in 1979 but then started their own repression, most pilgrims seemed to approve of the ayatollahs.
Even Mr Faris of the Communist party took a relaxed view. "The Iranian precedent will not be repeated here. We have an agreement with the other parties not to use violence. It will be a civilized struggle. We will have a constitution which will enshrine respect for minority views."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003