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Shiites Rising: Islam's minority reaches new prominence

Shiite Muslims are leading an 'axis of resistance' that unnerves Sunnis and challenges the US and Israel.

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Nine hundred miles separate the front line of last summer's war in Lebanon from a vast Tehran cemetery where Iran has buried thousands of its martyrs. Relatives come regularly to reverently lay flowers and press their lips to faded portraits of soldiers who perished in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. But today, the graveyard also honors another war hero.

Countless stickers, depicting the face of Lebanon's Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, now adorn one memorial after another.

That admiration is part of the strong and growing connection between Shiite Muslims – a bond that crosses borders and unites the fraction of Muslims who are its adherents.

Months after Israeli and Hizbullah forces fought in Lebanon, would-be Iranian martyrs still dream of taking up arms alongside their distant Shiite brethren.

"We were waiting. If we were needed, we would have gone to Lebanon to defend Shiites," says Manoucher Rasoulzadeh, an Iranian car salesman, during his weekly visit to the grave of his brother-in-law, a 1987 "martyr" of the war.

While Sheikh Nasrallah's visage evokes pride among Shiites in Iran, it's another figure whose sacrifice defines and unifies this minority Islamic sect.

Mr. Rasoulzadeh reaches for his cellphone to show off an image of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the revered cleric who was martyred in AD 680, with his hopelessly outnumbered band of followers in battle in Karbala, Iraq. It shows a thickly bearded man with rays of light coming from his green-turbaned head.

In the pantheon of Shiite holy men, none towers higher than Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The biggest Shiite holiday of the year, Ashura, honors that legend with reenactments, poetry, parades, and bloody self-flagellation.

"There is a saying," says Rasoulzadeh. "It is the blood of Hussein that kept Islam alive."

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