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In Iraq: One Religion, Two Realities

"We know there are agents working for the enemies, and we must warn them," another preacher said. "But if they don't wake up and abandon their wrong -- the path of the devil -- then we must deal with them mercilessly."

Impromptu markets often spring up outside mosques in Baghdad, catering to the crowds of worshipers. Some sell items believed used by the prophet Muhammad: a twig known as sawak to clean teeth, or strongly scented perfume. Alongside them at Um al-Qura were row after row of literature: a book on jihad by a renowned Arab fighter in Afghanistan in the 1980s, tales of Saladin, the medieval Muslim warrior, and a biography of Hassan Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

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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A militant message was reflected inside Um al-Qura, as well. On a white bulletin board, a leaflet calls U.S. attacks on cities such as Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi "genocide against Muslims." Another leaflet, wrapped around the green columns of the mosque's corridor, pleaded to worshipers: "Brother Muslim, remember that the enemy is targeting your religion, your country, your honor."

Shiite Righteousness

Across town at the Baratha mosque, in a Shiite neighborhood, a similar market springs up every Friday outside the mosque's entrance, near barricades to deter car bombs. There are rows of other books -- on the life of Shiite saints or the teachings of the grand ayatollahs whose words carry the force of law among Shiites. Posters celebrate them, both the living (Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani) and the dead (Mohammed Bakir Hakim, killed in a car bombing in 2003, and Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, assassinated in 1999).

On the entrance to Baratha, said to have been built before the city of Baghdad and one of its most revered Shiite sites, a leaflet condemns attacks by insurgents in a restive region south of Baghdad, on the way to the sacred city of Najaf.

"The terrorists have failed!" it intoned.

"The killers of today are the same killers of yesterday," the prominent Shiite preacher, Jalaledin Saghir, declared Friday at the mosque, built of concrete and gray stone, its two minarets topped by green domes.

In a style almost conversational, Saghir was frank: The insurgency celebrated at Sunni mosques amounts to "terrorism," and the attacks are no more than a cover for men loyal to Hussein or followers of Wahhabism, a militant Sunni sect implacably hostile to Shiites. There was less ambiguity here, little symbolism.

The avowedly pious men behind it, he said in another sermon, wear "the beards of devils and the gowns of hypocrites."

With his own white turban and tunic and beard colored gray, Saghir is the clerical equivalent of a showman. He mixes humorous asides with stern admonitions, sarcasm with righteousness. He dismissed Arab foreign ministers as a'rab -- a term that suggests uncultured Bedouins. He ridiculed the insurgents for calling themselves mujaheddin -- sacred fighters. He belittled their tactics, casting the insurgency as little more than a futile attempt to block the ascendancy of the long-oppressed Shiite majority.

"Did they think they could fight the enemy's technology with their Kalashnikovs?" he asked.

In another sermon, the preacher ridiculed an insurgent attack on a mobile phone office in Baghdad. On this Friday, as with others, his ire was directed almost overwhelmingly at the militants, with few words leveled against U.S. forces.

"It seems that the mobile phone is an infidel device," he mocked. "Anyone who owns it is considered an infidel."

The criticism of the insurgency is a preamble to the real issue at hand for Iraq's Shiites: elections on Jan. 30, which will choose a 275-member parliament that will oversee the writing of a constitution. Banners along the mosque's entrance portray the vote as a decisive moment in the community's history. "Participating in elections is a religious, national and moral duty." Or, more directly: "The enemy of Iraqi is the enemy of democracy, justice and elections."

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