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In Iraq: One Religion, Two Realities

Limits of Restraint

The sermons at Baratha and Um al-Qura often begin or end with a gesture of tolerance. Saghir, the Shiite preacher, will caution that "true Sunnis" are not all loyalists of Hussein or insurgents. At Um al-Qura, the sermon sometimes begins with blessings on the most revered Shiite saints: Ali, the prophet's son-in-law, and Hussein, his grandson.

Moqtada Sadr's Shiite movement prides itself on its nationalist message and its outreach to Sunnis. From the very first days after Saddam Hussein's fall, Sunni and Shiite clerics stressed the slogan, "No Sunni, no Shiite, only Islam." In opinion poll after opinion poll, when asked to list their affiliation, more people will simply list "Muslim," rather than "Sunni" or "Shiite."

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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But a fiercely sectarian undercurrent infuses the sermons these Fridays at the two mosques. Given the sermons' reach -- for many religious Iraqis, they are the window through which news and events are received and interpreted -- they amount to more than words uttered to the converted over a loudspeaker. They convey a sense of popular sentiments, of everyday conversations.

In his sermons, in a mosque where a portrait hangs of a Shiite martyr -- killed by Sunni militants and Baathists described as demons -- Saghir preaches restraint. Then he warns that restraint has its limits.

"How long can we be patient in the face of these crimes that are happening every day?" he asked. In another sermon, he was more direct: "We warn you about the anger of the gentle and the patient. When anger erupts, nothing can stop it."

At mosques such as Um al-Qura, the Sunni community is fashioned as the bulwark against U.S. and Israeli designs on the country. Shiite Iranians posing as Iraqis are flooding the country, the preachers say, and the Kurds are serving as stooges of the U.S. presence. The Sunnis are the nation's defenders against an occupation, and they are being called upon to act.

Across the capital, at a venerated Sunni mosque targeted by a U.S. raid last month, an Iraqi official demanded an investigation into the assault, which combined American soldiers and Iraqi security forces. The official called on the United Nations and the Arab League to lodge protests. He called for worshipers to close their ranks, in a united front against such aggression.

Someone cried out from among the crowd.

"Keep talking," he shouted. "But words are of no use."

Special correspondent Khalid Saffar contributed to this report.

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