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Last Updated:  Friday, 4 April, 2003, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Call to prayer revived by troops
By Sarah Oliver
In southern Iraq

It is a sound which has echoed down the centuries but which has not been heard here for 15 years - the wailing call to prayer.

On Friday however, at 0430 (0130 GMT), in the minutes before the desert dawn, the voice of the Imam rang out.

What Saddam's Baath party had forbidden, the British Army had restored.

The townspeople, whose mosque was destroyed years ago, prayed in the privacy of their own homes.

Iraqi worshiper prays in Baghdad¿s al-Gilani mosque
Friday prayer is an important occasion for Muslims

But instead of their worship being a secret and dangerous thing, it was freely performed with new joy.

The 1st Battalion Royal Irish secured a public address system for the Imam and men from their attached Royal, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers installed it on Thursday night in time for Friday prayers.

'Top priority'

By next Friday, commanding officer Lt Colonel Tim Collins hopes to have a prayer tent in place so the community can gather for the traditional midday address.

He said: "Banning prayer and denying Muslim people a mosque is simply one more manifestation of the Baath party's evil regime.

"From the moment we began our hearts and minds campaign here its restoration was a top priority.

"From now they will have their call to prayer five times a day - it will no longer be conducted behind closed doors, it will be done openly, as it should be."

Although the Imam was permitted to offer pastoral care, he was not allowed to fulfil his role as their religious leader, leaving the population of 4,000 struggling with the secular ideals of Baath.

Significant sign

On Friday, as dozens of townspeople thronged the alleyway at the back of his shabby terraced home, it was clear they had not forgotten their God.

The return of the call to prayer is perhaps the most significant sign yet that the shanty communities inhabiting the wealthy oilfields of southern Iraq are recovering their equilibrium under occupation by the British Army.

Another is the re-opening of the barber's shop where many officers from the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment are paying 250 dinars (10p) for a trim, which is finished with a cut-throat razor.

Iraqi militiaman leaves his Kalashnikov and his shoes at the entrance to Baghdad's al-Gilani mosque
Coalition troops have been involved in monitoring prayer occasions

The primary and secondary schools with 40 and 20 pupils apiece, have also opened their doors.

They are flying the Iraqi flag as a symbol of national identity but all pro-Saddam slogans have been painted out by local townspeople and Baath propaganda stripped from the classrooms.

Flatbreads being baked

A new football pitch, volleyball court and schoolyard are to be built for the children by the 1st Royal Irish.

Although none of the food shops has reopened - the traders are trapped in the southern city of Basra - nomadic tomato and onion sellers have returned to the marketplace and flatbreads are being baked.

British troops are banned from spending pounds sterling or US dollars as commanders are determined the local economy should not be undermined by hard currency trading.

We can't play god and enforce our own societal values on people, we need to enable them
Major Andrew Cullen

They have bankrolled the town's first ever bank with £1,000 worth of dinars confiscated from the Baath Party.

It is being used to pay the wages of municipal employees such as teachers and security staff and fund the town clinic which has been re-opened by a fourth year medical student after the doctor fled in the face of the Allied advance.

Next the Army will attempt to conduct a census on the main community which is dominated by oil industry workers, and its attached, much poorer and more rural village where railway workers - nicknamed the Ali Babars by townspeople - live.

'Enabling'

Law and order has been restored by the arrival of British Military Police and a regional government created by the formation of a Joint Civil-Military Commission, headed by Royal Irish second in command Major Andrew Cullen.

He said: "The influence of Baath was so great that it had filtered down to the lowest level of society and since we have destroyed Baath we must now help them build a new framework.

"We can't play god and enforce our own societal values on people, we need to enable them."

As well as helping with water and power, attached engineers are assisting with carpentry or plumbing.

They hope that soon residents will be self-sufficient.

The ambition of the townspeople and the Royal Irish is to see the oilfields re-opened and jobs restored.

With the oil will come wealth and with the wealth will come security and stability.

"We are here to see that happens," said Major Cullen.

  • This is pooled copy from Sarah Oliver of the Mail On Sunday, with the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment in southern Iraq.




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