The Mediterranean Route Runs Through the Caravan of the Karbala Captives
Even though the project to renovate the caravan route of the Karbala prisoners is ostensibly for religious purposes, it also possesses political, economic, and perhaps expansionist objectives. About a year ago, the Management of the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala (Astan Husseini), administered by the Najaf authority led by Ayatollah Sistani, unveiled its plan to rebuild mosques, husseiniyahs, and religious sites which were destroyed by Daesh militants. Since the above mentioned religious sites that Astan Husseini plans to renovate are administered by the Sunni charity foundations, a contentious agreement last October was delayed by the spread of COVID19 was finally signed between the Shiite and Sunni foundations. According to this agreement, many of these foundations which are under the control of Sunni authorities would be handed over to the Shiite administrators so that the Shiites could run the mentioned foundations. The agreement sparked a huge wave of protests by Sunni scholars, politicians, and representatives. As seen by them, the agreement is of no benefit to the Sunnis and was signed by someone who does not represent them. As a result of these protests, Prime Minister Mustafa Kazemi ordered a halt to its implementation. This agreement was the first initiative for the Management of Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala (Astan Husseini) to take a bigger step by rebuilding religious places: reviving the route of the caravan of Karbala prisoners from Kufa to Damascus.
Karbala Prisoners Caravan Route
It is obvious that the caravan route of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, and the manner how the Ahl al-Bayt prisoners after the event of Karbala were taken to the targeted destination by their captors, or the selection of the name of the caravan route "Sabaya” by the proponents of the project do not have consensus of opinions among people, and is very controversial in the historical perspective. The word " Sabaya" in the culture of ancient Arabs was used for non-Muslim women captives. However, what the author of this article is interested in is the path that is to be reconstructed as the current caravan route.
According to the officials of Management of Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala (Astan Husseini), this route initiates from the current city of Karbala and enters Syria through a point near the Fishkhabur border, passing through Tikrit, Mosul’s Ski town, Tal Afar, and Mount Sinjar. From there, passing through Jaza, located in the east of Haskeh province, later then it goes to Nusaybin city. After several hundred kilometers on Turkish territory, which is claimed to embrace several signs of the caravan route, such as the Zayn al-Abedin Mosque and the places where Imam Hussein’s head was rested during the journey of the caravan in the city of Nusaybin, it enters Aleppo from northern Syria. After crossing Lebanon via Hama and Homs and goes through the city of Baalbek to Damascus.
The individuals responsible for this project intend to reconstruct the entire 2,000-kilometer route that passes through four countries and to build and/or reconstruct religious sites in all its important areas of the caravan’s passing. As believed by them, by holding religious ceremonies on the anniversary of the Karbala tragedy in the religious sites that would be built, they can introduce Imam Hussein to the world. In the first phase of the project, which starts from Ski town in the city of Mosul and leads to the town of Jaza in eastern Syria, which is 5 km long, several points are to be built as a shrine for the (Ahl al-Bayt) prophet’s family.
The project has been met with strong criticizing reactions from Iraqi politicians, representatives, Sunni parties and scholars, and other religions’ followers. Human Rights Watch (AFAD) described it as a disguised cover for changing the demographics of the predominantly non-Shiite region. The Salvation and Development Front, led by Osama Najafi, a former parliamentary speaker, called on the Kazemi government to halt this project as it aims to wage the religious war. The "Arab Project", led by Khamis al-Khanjar, called on the Shiite charity foundations and Astan Husseini to refrain from provocative religious activities. Ahmad Hadidi, one of the sheiks of Nineveh, attributed the plan to Iran, noting that most of the designated route is currently destroyed due to the war with ISIS and that its Yazidi, Christian, Muslim, Shabak, Arab and Turkmen people are displaced. He was quoted as saying that the implementation of this plan is a threat to the future of the region. Several groups and organizations issued a statement condemning the project, including the Committee to Defend Citizens of Religions in Iraq, the Sumerian Center for Human Rights Watch, the Iraqi Independent Human Rights Organization in Sweden, the Iraqi-Canadian Center for Human Rights, and the Kurdish Institute for Research and Studies.
Astan Husseini’s Justifications and Reasons Amid the Controversies surrounding the Project
Following the wave of protests, Ali al-Qarawi, director of the Karbala Caravan Road Recognition Group, said in a press conference that Astan Husseini was not a representative of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih) in Iran and that the religious institution was acting under the law. A statement later said that experts from Mosul University were involved in identifying and discovering the route. According to them, the purpose of this project, in addition to reviving the works of the prophet Muhammad’s family (Ahl al-Bayt), is to condemn the captivity of women. Proponents of the project argue that this project will not ignite differences between Sunnis and Shiites in the region, yet brings the Iraqi people closer together and unites them.
Behind the Scenes Goals
At first glance, this planned project may be considered a kind of sectarian extremism for the economic-related use of a religious institution, but some believe, given that the Islamic Republic of Iran has a long history of utilizing the name and fame of Prophet Muhammad’s family (Ahl al-Bayt) to carry out its plans in the region. This project can also be a soft tool for the Islamic Republic to achieve their designated goals. The revolutionary slogan "The path of Quds passes through Karbala" and the measures are taken to export the revolution taken place to Iraq immediately after the victory of the revolution in Iran, led to an eight-year war between the two countries. In Syria, too, after claiming that the aim was to "defend the sanctuary," it was recently revealed, according to Mahmoud Chaharbaghi, the then commander of the IRGC artillery, that Soleimani's mission in Syria before the rise of ISIS was to prevent Assad from being overthrown by the opposition. According to Qassem Soleimani, "The shrine means the whole Islamic Republic of Iran, not just the shrine of Hazrat Zeinab." Saeed Ghasemi, a former deputy for military intelligence in the IRGC navy, also said in a statement, "I consider the Bab al-Mandeb Strait to be part of the Bibi Zeinab shrine." Therefore, the Islamic Republic of Iran, whenever it sees fit, can provide any definition of the Ahl al-Bayt, and they can apply this definition wherever it sees necessary. It seems that the Islamic Republic of Iran is abusing Astan Husseini and the Najaf authority to carry out this project.
According to some observers, the role of Astan Husseini in this project is more ceremonial and the executor behind it is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The presence of some provincial mobilization groups such as the Kata'ib Hezbollah, Najba, Asaeb Ahl al-Haq and the Hashd al-Shaabi in the stage of identifying this route and not using the forces of Astan Husseini known as the hashd al-Atbat militia confirms this claim. Waad Qudu, the commander of the Hashd al-Shaabi, while denying any role for the group in the project, claimed that the Hashd al-Shaabi is only there to ensure the security of the field groups. It is clear that when the road identification phase requires the presence of several groups of provincial mobilization, after the construction of Shiite shrines in an area where the majority of residents are non-Shiite, the presence of more mobilization groups will be required.
The realization of this project, apart from abusing the religious beliefs and the name of the (Ahl al-Bayt) Prophet Muhammad’s family and playing with the feelings of the followers of the sects, is a clear violation of the ethnic, sectarian, and religious identity of the non-Shiite residents of these areas and their gradual identity change. On the other hand, Turkey is likely to block the project on its territory. However, its implementation in the north of Iraq and Syria will create a wall between Turkey and the Sunni Arab world.
Certainly, when this "holy" route of two thousand kilometers is prepared, defending it will be proclaimed as one of the duties of the "followers of the Ahl al-Bayt". Also, changing the names of these areas under the pretext of reviving historical names is not unexpected. Although this project is done based on religious purposes reaching the warm waters of the Mediterranean, creating a wall between Turkey and the Sunni Arab world, and in general, political, economic, and perhaps expansionist goals are among the objectives that are laid behind the scenes.