A group of private security officers hired by owners of the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW staged a predawn raid on the mosque yesterday, evicted one of its fundamentalist Moslem leaders, then closed the center indefinitely to change its door locks and search the premises for a rumored weapons cache.
The incident immediately set off protests among the followers of the ousted religious leader, Imam Mohammad Asi. About 75 protesters congregated behind a police barricade a few blocks away from the mosque at 2551 Massachusetts Ave. NW, shouting, "Police, get out of our house."
Several persons who crossed police lines were struck with nightsticks and protesters hurled rocks at police, authorities said. Three persons were reported arrested and charged with crossing a police line and two persons received minor injuries in the scuffle. One of the injured suffered a broken nose and was taken to George Washington University Hospital where he was treated and released, police said.
Traffic near the mosque was rerouted for about four hours while police searched the building. No weapons were found.
Cherif Sedky, a lawyer for the center's board of governors, told reporters yesterday that he had tried unsuccessfully to "persuade and cajole unauthorized persons" to leave the mosque in accordance with a 1981 D.C. Superior Court injunction forbidding anyone from living in the mosque.
Two weeks ago, he said, the board of governors, which is composed of ambassadors from nearly 60 Moslem countries with embassies here, elected a new imam, appointed a new administrator and voted to evict anyone living on the premises.
"We had hoped to avoid a scene such as this," Sedky said. "There are about 20,000 to 30,000 Moslems in the Washington area, and this small group who were occupying the mosque did not represent them."
Imam Muhammad Asi later told reporters that he had been selected by a nine-man Council of Guidance, elected from the Islamic community at large, who requested that he live at the mosque. Asi moved into the mosque a year ago with his wife and one-year-old son.
The Council of Guidance claims that it represents the "dedicated" members of Washington's Islamic community, while it says the board of governors represents only well-to-do Moslems.
The struggle between the two groups is ultimately for control of the Washington mosque, considered a "tone setter" for other mosques across the country. It is part of a longstanding religious division between Sunni and Shiite Moslems.
In November 1979, Dr. Mohammad Rauf, a Sunni Moslem who was director of the mosque, was suddenly replaced and called back to his homeland, Egypt.
A year later, in 1980, Moslem fundamentalists, led in part by Iranian supporters of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seized control of the mosque's Friday prayer services.
The board of governors retaliated in October 1981 by closing the mosque for repairs, but a dozen demonstrators occupied the mosque and refused to leave. The demonstrators were arrested, but the charges were later dropped.
At about 5 a.m. yesterday, Sedky, security guards, locksmiths and a backup unit from the D.C. police Special Operations Division arrived at the mosque.
"We had a choice of starting before the prayer services which begin at 6:30 a.m. or after," said Sedky. "We had also heard that there were arms and bombs being stored at the mosque, so we asked the local police to come check it out."
Asi recalled that he and his family were asleep when they heard a loud knock on the bedroom door. Before he could get dressed, the door had been opened, he said.
"If we had guns and bombs, I would have used them then," he said. "But we are not terrorists." Asi said he and his family were taken by van to an apartment in Arlington, held for four hours then returned to the mosque. He was greeted by a cheering crowd.
The board of governors is expected to meet today to determine when the mosque will be reopened.