As the embattled country wages war on ISIS in the north, its future may be decided by clerics in the south.
KARBALA, Iraq—The inner sanctum of the Imam Hussein Shrine shines day and night, illuminated by jeweled chandeliers. Their light is reflected in the mirrored domes of the roof, and gleams across the gold-framed marble walls. At the center of the shrine, a stream of pilgrims presses against the gilded grating that surrounds the sarcophagus of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. In 680 AD, Imam Hussein was killed in the Battle of Karbala fighting the forces of the Umayyad caliph, his death cementing Sunni political dominance across the Islamic world. The battle was the point of no return in the schism between Sunni and Shia Islam, becoming the basis for the Shiites’ distinct rituals and identity, at the center of which is Hussein’s sacrifice.