BAGHDAD - Culture plays a lead role in the lives of people all over the world, and while in Iraq, there are many cultural differences and Islamic practices that U.S. Soldiers need to be aware of.

Although for many Americans this season is a time filled with gifts, joy and happiness, for the Shia Muslim community it is filled with a great deal of sorrow and pain.

Dec. 18 marks the start of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar year. This first month is a sacred month in which peace prevails and fighting is prohibited, as well as the start of the Shia pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Imam Husain, the grandson of the prophet, Mohammad.

The pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred shrine, and the Shia Muslims are beginning their journey to Karbala. For many Iraqi natives, it is tradition to start these travels on foot the seventh or eighth day of Muharram, carrying a green or black flag. Many other Shias from Iran, India, Pakistan, Bahrain, and elsewhere will visit the shrine also.

When the march kicks off, Iraqi Army Soldiers will be prevalent in the streets southwest of Baghdad as millions will gather to the site of Husain's holy shrine in Karbala.

The purpose of the march is for Shias to pay their respects to Imam Husain's holy shrine. Not all Shia carry on this tradition. It depends on how the individual was raised. While on their journey, those making the pilgrimage are welcomed into the homes of many. People along the road help them, feed them, and offer them a place to sleep.

During the march to the holy shrine, they-immersed in faith-are known for inflicting pain upon themselves to represent the pain and suffering Husain felt when he was martyred. The Shia march in remembrance of his sacrifice.

More than 1000 years ago, Yazid bin Mu'awiyah-the Muslim leader-didn't enforce Islamic rules and traditions. Husain led a revolution against Yazid after his refusal to follow the rules and traditions of Islam. The Shia Muslims look at the war as if it were a battle between the righteous and the unrighteous.

As a small child, the young Husain learned from a prophet that he would be killed in a great war. He knew that he would be martyred. If Husain had simply announced his allegiance to Yazid, he would have been granted his life. Husain stood his ground as he would not abandon the traditional Islamic word that was engraved in his heart, and for that, he was martyred.

The people of Kufa, a town outside of what is now the big city of Najif said: come to us, and promised they would support him. Unfortunately, they changed their minds because they were afraid of the 10,000 warriors from Syria who were camped in Karbala, and had threatened to kill Husain.

Knowing the consequences, Husain traveled to Karbala to make peace. He traveled with his family to include women and children. Some of his family and 72 of his followers were massacred in Karbala. Husain is viewed as a martyr, and his sacrifices remain in the hearts of many Shia.

The one-day war ended with the decapitation of Husain after he was speared and shot with a flaming arrow. To make an example of him, Yazid's men didn't bury Husain. They captured the women and children, trampled Husain's body with their horses, and proceeded to parade Husain's head through Syria to send a warning to all who questioned Yazid.

Later, the women and children were released, and they buried Husain in a coffin. As time went on, the coffin became more embellished. What started simple is now a sizable, holy shrine.

The journey symbolizes the deep sorrow felt for the sacrifices Imam Husain made and represents the pains he suffered-spear wounds, flaming arrows, and decapitation.

Some of the marchers perform torturous acts to themselves in the following forms: continuous hard slapping over their chest, whipping their backs with chains, and in more severe cases, using a saber or sword to slash at their skull. These are all self-inflicted acts.

It is the Shia's way of showing their internal mourning for the loss of Husain in the war. They suffer through the journey, and indulge in habitual weeping when they arrive at the shrine, each year, reenacting the severity of Husain's suffering.

Some religious driven practices may seem extreme; however, these practices are culturally symbolic to Shia Muslims. It is important to remain respectful of the Shia beliefs and cautious of any hostile acts that might occur.