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ASHURA IN DAMASCUS: Groups of Shia took to the streets of Damascus Saturday to celebrate Ashura – one of the most sacred Shiite holidays – in a powerful display of the Shiite presence in Syria’s capital, reported pro-opposition news agency Syria Mubasher.

Here, around the tomb of Sayyida Zaynab in southern Damascus, lines of flag-waving women and children march through markets in the direction of the revered tomb.

The Sayyida Zaynab tomb is one of the most important Shiite landmarks in Syria and has served as a major rallying point for Shiite governments and militia groups in their support of the Assad regime.

The Iraqi and Iranian government, as well as the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, have all invoked the protection of the tomb from Sunni extremists as one of the explanations for sending troops to Syria.

“For you, oh Husayn,” the flags say, invoking the death of Husayn ibn Ali that the holiday commemorates.

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While groups of religious tourists from Shiite countries have always visited Damascus to pay homage to the Sayyida Zaynab tomb, the Shiite presence in the city has greatly increased during the war as foreign fighters in support of Assad stream in from neighboring countries.

“There are many Shiite fighters from Hezbollah and other militias,” a Damascus-based activist who wished to remain anonymous told Syria Direct in late October. “You find them everywhere in Old Damascus. They are Lebanese and Iraqi mostly.”

Prior to the outbreak of the revolution in 2009, Shia made up 13 percent of the Syrian population.

Before the war, Shia never marched publically in Damascus, even for a holiday as important as Ashura. Photographs from this year’s march appear to show that that they took place inside the Old City and around the Umayyad Mosque, reported London-based Arabic news agency a-Sharq al-Awsat.

The public spectacle of Shiite power in Damascus could potentially stoke the flames of further sectarian conflict in a war already shaped by religious divisions.

-November 2, 2014

-Photo courtesy of @alRifai1.

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