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In Iraq: One Religion, Two Realities

Sunni, Shiite Sermons Leave No Room for Dialogue on Election or Insurgents

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- In a ritual practiced thousands of times, the men gather at two mosques -- Um al-Qura in a Sunni neighborhood, Baratha in a Shiite one -- at the appointed hour. The phrase "God is greatest" is uttered four times, and the men line up in successive rows. An hour or so later, crowds spilling into the halls, they bow their heads in graceful uniformity. Silence ensues, and they pray.

The words uttered in between, though, echo across a yawning divide.


Sunni Muslims attend Friday prayers at Um al-Qura mosque in Baghdad, where the Iraqi insurgency is celebrated as an act of resistance against a faithless and deceitful American occupier. U.S. attacks on insurgents in Iraqi cities such as Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi, are denounced as "genocide against Muslims." (Khalid Mohammed -- AP)

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Each week in Baghdad, sermons to the faithful offer a tale of two Fridays. Both sermons -- one Sunni, the other Shiite -- dwell on the issues that color Baghdad's weary life: the insurgency, elections planned for next month and the U.S. military presence. But the messages are so diametrically opposed as to speak to two realities and two futures for the country.

In Um al-Qura, built by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein as the Mother of All Battles Mosque, the insurgency is celebrated as an act of resistance against a faithless and deceitful American occupier. In no less strident rhetoric, at the venerated Baratha mosque, that same insurgency is condemned as wicked and senseless violence waged by loyalists of Hussein and foreigners. Elections are subjugation at the Sunni sermon, liberation at the Shiite one. And at each, the community's patience, the preachers insist, is wearing dangerously thin after yet another provocation or slight.

Since the fall of Hussein in April 2003, Iraqi communities have resisted the impulse to settle scores, some of which are based on grievances dating back decades, even centuries. But in the words that fill the halls of Baratha and Um al-Qura are signs of what some in Iraq fear may lie ahead. Across a divide between sects who split in a 7th-century dispute over leadership of the Muslim community, each sermon offers the same combustible mix. There is utter certainty, blessed by God and justified by faith.

Sharing little, the sermons leave scant room for dialogue, even less for compromise.

And on any Friday in Baghdad, neither side seems to hear the other.

Sunni Wrath

In a stentorian voice that lectured the dozens crowded in the domed sanctuary of Um al-Qura, the preacher, Ali Abu Hassan, declared: "Again and again, they demonstrate a picture of hostility toward the faithful!" Speaking without notes, Abu Hassan never specified who "they" were. There was no need to.

In Sunni mosques such as Um al-Qura, there is no hesitation about the insurgency that rages in Baghdad and Sunni regions to the north and west. The insurgents are fighting for God, and the occupiers are infidels.

"Do not listen to the hypocrites and do not listen to those with no faith," Abu Hassan said. "Do not trust your secrets to them, and do not take advice from them." A pause, ever so brief, was followed by an admonition: "They don't want good for you."

The words were standard fare at Um al-Qura, in a turbulent stretch in western Baghdad, where armed insurgents can sometimes be seen in the streets. For years, the mosque was perhaps most distinctive for its kitschy design: In a memorial to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, four of its minarets were built to resemble Kalashnikovs, four others Scud missiles. Its old name, the Mother of All Battles, is still inscribed over the entrance of the mosque, built of sand-colored concrete and blue tile, its dome adorned with the phrase, "There is no god but God." After the U.S. invasion, it was renamed after the holy city of Mecca, and its role reincarnated as one of the capital's most militant Sunni mosques, where fugitives hiding from the U.S. military show up to pray on Friday.

"The Americans have to realize that they need 25 million soldiers to defeat this population of 25 million Iraqis," the preacher declared in a sermon there last month. He listed each city, and declared it either in insurgent hands or soon to be: Fallujah, Mosul, Baqubah and Samarra. "The wombs of Iraqi women will bring more fighters into this world."

On that Friday, the crowd responded with a cry of "God is greatest!"

In another sermon at the mosque, the message for Iraqis seen as collaborators was blunt.


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