'We await your help! It is time for your support, O King of Baghdad!' The reference in this passionate prayer that echoes in the shrines of unorthodox Sufi saints in Kashmir is not to Saddam Hussein.
Though Hussein's posters were seen in the anti-war protests that took place in Kashmir, Kashmiris identify Iraq with Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, popularly known as Dastgeer Sahib (or one who shows the path).
An eighth century Sufi saint, he played a pivotal role in spreading Islam in the Kashmir valley and is one of the most revered saints in Kashmir. His devotees belong to different religious communities since he emphasised incorporating local practices and Islam's egalitarian spirit.
Their devotion to the Iraqi saint gave Kashmiris another reason to protest the war against Iraq. Dastgeer Sahib is buried at Iraq's Jeelan town, where a shrine stands in his memory.
"We were worried about the Iraqi citizens, many of whom have been killed by American bombs and bullets. We also feared the war may damage the shrine or the attacking soldiers might desecrate it," Maulvi Nazir Ahmed, who leads prayers at the shrine dedicated to the memory of the saint in central Srinagar, told rediff.com
Ahmed, who claims to be Dastgeer Sahib's descendant, organised special prayers for the safety of the saint's mausoleum in Iraq. Along with hundreds of devotees, he believed God would protect it from harm. "Knowing Dastgeer Sahib's stature I firmly believed no American bombs or missiles could even come close to his shrine," he said.
Kashmiris have been monitoring media reports closely, even as they hoped not to see or read any bad news related to their revered saint's mausoleum. "Thanks to the Almighty, no harm has come to Shah-e-Baghdad's shrine. Saddam Hussein and George Bush will come and go, but no worldly power can cause harm to the resting place of the eternal king of Baghdad," Ahmed said.
The shrine of Shamsuddin Iraqi, who came from Iraq and is revered by the Shia community here, also marks Kashmir's close ties with Iraq.
Shias also revere Karbala, the Iraqi town where Prophet Mohammad's grandson Hussain died fighting a tyrant.
"The American attack on Iraq was like another Karbala. The Iraqi people were as helpless against the American bombs as the companions of the Prophet's grandson, who fought the battle of Karbala without water for many days," said Ghulam Hasnain, a government employee and a Shia. Though many Shias like Hasnain hate Saddam Hussein, they say the war made them forget their grudges.
Photograph: Ami Vitale/Getty Images
Image: Dominic Xavier