TEHRAN, Iran -- Millions of Iranians, many beating themselves with bare hands or iron chains, took to the streets Saturday to mark the anniversary of the death of one of Shiite Islam's most revered saints.

In the capital, Tehran, large processions of men dressed in black marched down the city's main streets. They beat themselves in rhythm in a show of sorrow at the death of Hussein, the grandson of Islam's Prophet Mohammed.The occasion, known as Ashoura, is also observed every year in Shiite communities in other countries, including Lebanon, Bahrain, Pakistan and India.

In Iran, whose 62 million people are predominantly Shiite, men trudged over blood from slaughtered cows and sheep. Women, who do not take part in the self-flagellation in public, wept and watched the processions.

Hussein was killed in a battle on the plains of Karbala near the Euphrates River in 680. The Karbala battle, part of a dispute over leadership of the faith that began after Mohammed's death, was a key event in Islam's split into the Sunni and minority Shiite branches.

The Shiites favored the prophet's son-in-law, Ali, and Ali's son, Hussein, as Mohammed's successors, but both were slain in the fighting.

Hussein's martyrdom -- recounted through a rich body of prose, poetry and song -- remains a powerful example of sacrifice to many Shiites, who make up about 10 percent of the world's estimated 1 billion Muslims. Clay from Karbala is stamped into little cakes used by Shiites to rest the forehead in prostration during prayer.

On Saturday, actors wearing armor re-enacted the Karbala battle. Performers on horseback portraying Hussein and his companions were dressed in green and white, the colors of Islam. Actors playing the enemy wore red.

Loudspeakers in the main streets blared religious songs eulogizing Hussein and his followers. Many restaurants gave away food.

Among the mourners was Amir Feizollahzadeh, a high school student, who was beating his shoulders with chains.

"I attend the mourning ceremonies because I love Imam Hussein. He sacrificed his blood to teach us not to give in to corruption and coercion, but to seek honor and justice," he said.

Another mourner, Shah Mirza Ojaghi, said he was cured of back pain during Ashoura more than 20 years ago and has since slaughtered a cow every year to mark the occasion.

"Back in 1978, I had a severe back pain. Doctors said they could not treat me," he said. "On the night of Ashoura, I slept in the place of mourning for Imam Hussein. I appealed to Hussein. I said, 'kill me or cure me.' The next day, I joined the mourners, walking as if I never had pain." He wept quietly as he recounted the story.