Iraqi Shiites, Jockeying for Power, Preach an Anti-American Sermon
New York Times
Saturday 19 April 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq, -- Nearly 100 Islamic clerics have affirmed an emerging fundamentalist, anti-American position for Shiite Muslims in the capital, asserting authority over the country's Shiite community, whose governance is among the most pressing issues in the new Iraq.
Preaching a strict adherence to Shariah, the Islamic legal code based on the Koran, and urging a ban on music, dancing and imitations of Western behavior, a visiting cleric from Najaf, the Iraqi Shiite spiritual and political center 100 miles south of Baghdad, demanded on Friday that the United States leave Iraq.
"We don't want a formal democracy that will give Iraqis the right to say what they want but the government will do what it wants," Sheik Muhammad Fartousi told the gathering at the El Hekmah Mosque in the heart of Baghdad's vast Shiite slum formerly known as Saddam City. The neighborhood's residents have since renamed it Al Sadr City, after the Shiite cleric Muhammad al-Sadr, who was reportedly assassinated on Mr. Hussein's orders in 1999.
Outside the mosque, an unruly group of men armed with an assortment of weapons ranging from Russian-made light machine guns to pistols and AK-47's, shot into the air to keep cars from coming near.
Shiek Fartousi's message, repeated in Shiite mosques across the country during the first widespread convocation of Friday Prayers in the four years since they were banned by Mr. Hussein, presents a challenge for Americans and Iraqis hoping to create a democratic, pro-American government to replace Mr. Hussein.
"We are all against the coalition because they are infidels," said Sheik Abbas al-Zubaidi, one of the Shiite clerics who have taken control of several Baghdad hospitals. "We are demanding an Islamic state."
"We will have an Islamic state here that mainly orders good and prevents evil," Mr. Zubaidi said. He added in the state he envisions, "Televisions are not allowed, dominoes are not allowed, women wearing makeup are not allowed, dubbed foreign films are not allowed."
"It will be a state whose laws are written in the Koran," he said.
The Shiite sect broke from the Sunni Muslim mainstream in the seventh century and makes up about 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people. In modern times, they were persecuted under the secular rule of Mr. Hussein, who is a Sunni.
The Shiites' potential as a political force, particularly in calling for Iraq to become an Islamic state along the lines of Iran, made them a threat to Mr. Hussein, one that he countered with assassinations, arrests and severe curbs on their freedom of expression.
If united, the Shiites could dominate Iraqi politics in a democratic system. But Friday's meeting in Baghdad may have been less of a show of unity than a power play by one faction hoping to gain control over Iraq's often-divided Shiite population.
"People basically wanted to say no to America and no to Saddam," said Imam Karim al-Mousawi, sitting in the white stucco office of his small mosque on the eastern side of Al Sadr City. Mr. Mousawi, a gaunt man with a four-inch beard, said that he, too, considered the United States an occupier rather than liberator, "but I didn't attend the meeting because it was not an official meeting from the Najaf seminary."
That seminary is the Shiites' central school in Najaf, near the Tomb of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and one source of the split between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Shiites believe Ali was the rightful successor to Muhammad. Until Mr. Sadr's death, authority over the school was shared by four senior clerics, each of whom has his own organization and offices near the tomb.
While Shiites refer to the seminary as the source of ultimate authority, often waiting days for answers to questions they send by courier to Najaf, their allegiance is generally paid to one or another of the three remaining senior clerics there.
Though Sheik Ali al-Sestani is the most senior of them, the office of the late Mr. Sadr, run now by his son Moqtadah al-Sadr, has been most active and most radical in its message since the fall of Mr. Hussein's government.
Many clerics, troubled by the radical language of Mr. Sadr's followers, say Mr. Sestani is promoting a more moderate message. The United States has already tried to exploit that division by sending a returning exile cleric into Najaf in the days after the fall of the city in the hope of winning support from the clergy there. But that cleric, Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei, was killed last week when he tried to establish his authority by reconciling with the caretaker of Ali's tomb, a man widely disparaged in the Shiite community in Najaf for his collaboration with Mr. Hussein's government.
Mr. Khoei's killing was a warning to returning Iraqi exiles that the Shiites who endured Mr. Hussein's repression will not easily accept the rule of outsiders.
"We do not want an opposition coming from abroad or a proxy American government with Iraqi puppets," said Hadi al-Waeli, the imam of Al Mahdi Mosque in Baghdad's Kadhemah district.
"The Iraqis who lived and suffered in Iraq have more rights to power than those who came from abroad and do not enjoy any leverage," he said.
In a dim hospital office with a Kalashnikov lying on his desk, Mr. Zubaidi, one of the clerics who have taken control of the hospitals, called the Najaf seminary the Shiite community's "real ideological and social leadership."
"It is more important than any other authority," he said.
As he spoke, Mr. Zubaidi doled out stacks of Iraqi dinars to a steady stream of visitors whispering requests in his ear. He said the money came from the Najaf seminary, but later explained that it came specifically from the Mr. Sadr's office, which has sent him three million dinars, or about $1,000, in the past nine days.
Many Shiites expressed particular disdain for Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite leader who has returned to Baghdad with a small American-armed militia.
"This Chalabi doesn't represent anyone," said Mr. Zubaidi. "He is just a corrupt businessman, though I am afraid he might buy people's loyalty with his money."
Adel Abdel-Mahdi is the new representative in Baghdad for Bakr al-Hakim, the Tehran-based leader of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq and who also hopes to win a place in a new Iraqi administration. "There are splits in all the communities," Mr. Abdel-Mahdi said. "Thirty-five years of repression left a vacuum and you will need some time to fill it."
That vacuum is filling quickly, though, and the anti-American, Islamist power structure taking hold here could prove difficult to dislodge.
The young Mr. Sadr, wielding the authority of his late father, opened an office in Al Sadr City on Friday and has installed several clerics to run Baghdad's hospitals, supplying them with financing to act as social service centers.
"We are now officially in control of the hospital," Mr. Zubaidi said in his office, moving his Kalashnikov to display a letter signed by Mr. Sadr.
Clerics loyal to Mr. Sadr have also formed militias to patrol Shiite neighborhoods, shooting with impunity those people they deem threats. In the highly charged, chaotic atmosphere of Al Sadr City, snap judgments have left many people dead.
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