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In Iraq: One Religion, Two Realities

"Today we have a duty and tomorrow we have a duty -- urging the people and persuading them to participate in the election," Saghir told the worshipers, who spilled along a red carpet into the courtyard outside. "This is a duty!"

The sectarian lens can sometimes blur the nuances in Iraqi politics, and elections are no different. Unlike the mainstream clergy, the movement of Moqtada Sadr, a young, populist Shiite cleric, has remained ambivalent about the vote. Some Sunni groups such as the influential Iraqi Islamic Party have defied calls for a boycott by registering for the ballot. But along with the insurgency, elections represent perhaps the sharpest fault line through Iraq's sectarian landscape. In the broadest sense, the disdain for the election among politicized Sunnis is matched only by the enthusiasm among religious Shiites.

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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Since Sistani, the grand ayatollah, insisted that voting was a duty, the Shiite clergy have mobilized to carry out his edict. They have held lectures, organized meetings and, most powerfully, delivered the message in Friday sermons.

"We should go forward in the path of elections," Saghir insisted.

For Shiites, the elections are a way to inherit by peaceful means power that was long monopolized by Sunni Arabs, who make up about a fifth of the country's population. For some Shiites, the elections will undo mistakes made when Iraq was founded. In 1920, the Shiite clergy led a revolt against the British occupation after World War I. Once it was put down, the clergy kept up their opposition, rejecting Shiite participation in elections that followed and discouraging a role in the government and its institutions, which were soon dominated by Sunnis.

Among Iraqi Shiites, this history remains resonant. The sermons at Baratha roam from the founding of Islam and the death of 7th-century Shiite martyrs to more modern oppression. On Friday, Saghir criticized charges by some politicians that Iraq's Shiites were unduly influenced by neighboring Iran, an overwhelmingly Shiite country. This was the language of Hussein, he said, and it mimicked the tired rhetoric he used in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. In the Shiite narrative, modern and ancient mingle, and the past shapes the present.

America's 'True Face'

At Um al-Qura, the Sunni preacher drew on the same history -- with a different message.

Sometimes cited there is the Battle of Badr in 623, when outnumbered Muslim forces led by the prophet scored their first victory against their enemies. On this day, the preacher recalled the Battle of Uhud, which occurred two years later, when the early Muslims were defeated after 300 fighters betrayed them and deserted their ranks. The Muslims today, Abu Hassan told the Sunni worshipers, are being similarly betrayed by Iraqi collaborators who have deserted them and fallen for the infidels' "cunning smiles."

"When they see you, they will deceive you with beautiful words and beautiful conversation," the preacher said. "If a disaster befalls you or evil comes your way, they become happy." He went on, standing before a microphone: "They want the faithful to be poor, ignorant and divided. These three things make it easy for them to loot the riches of the country."

In Sunni mosques such as Um al-Qura, the elections are perhaps most objectionable because they would be perceived as a victory for the U.S. effort in Iraq. That project, many of the sermons insist, is founded on duplicity.

"The United States of America has built its glory upon the blood of innocents and portrays itself through the media as the bringer of peace and sermon," a preacher said last month at Um al-Qura. "This war has uncovered the true face of the United States."

The preacher offered a record of the U.S. experience in Iraq: the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the death of civilians in American attacks, the arrest of Sunni clerics, the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the illegality of the U.S. invasion. During his sermon, an explosion echoed from the distance, drawing cries from the crowd. "God is greatest!" they shouted.

"We have grown to hate the words of freedom and democracy because of them," he told the worshipers, on a green carpet bordered with red flowers. "Could we be so ignorant as to believe that they want our interests after all this oppression?"

"These elections are nothing more than a show in an attempt to fool us," he added.

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