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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 April, 2003, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
New role for mosques in Iraq

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online in Baghdad

Northern Baghdad is gridlocked, with thousands of cars blocking the route to one of the city's major Islamic shrines - petrol supplies must be improving at least, even if there is still no electricity or water, and anarchy rules many streets.

Baghdad's Azamiya mosque with damage visible to the clock tower (left) and one of the main gates
The damaged Azamiya is an important Baghdad shrine
The traffic is crawling towards the Kadhimiya district where an important Shia Muslim figure, Musa al-Kadhim, is buried.

By chance the bottleneck is outside one of the city's major Sunni sites, the tomb of the jurist Abu Hanifa, known as the Azamiya mosque.

There is no sign of friction between the two communities, and a banner hangs on the gates of the mosque declaring: "There is no Sunna and no Shia, Yes to Islamic unity".

Banners - including ones in English saying "Pull out the tanks, don't provoke us" and "Iraqis reject disgrace" - are left over from an angry demonstration after prayers on Friday calling for an end to the US military occupation.

Inside the mosque, the atmosphere is strongly anti-American, a mood magnified by the damage the US military has caused here - to the tomb sanctuary of Abu Hanifa himself as well as to the outside structure of the building.

"The soldiers came during the battle for Azamiya on 10 April," says Hisham, who witnessed the incident.

"They fired some sort of shoulder-launched rocket - I don't know what it's called - to open the locked door of the sanctuary. They wanted to arrest one of the sheikhs for calling 'Allahu akbar' on the loudspeaker."

Muslim sensibilities

I speculated that for Baghdad's Sunni Muslim faithful, US forces could hardly have committed a more atrocious faux pas than blowing off the door of this cherished religious figure's tomb.

"They can reduce Saddam's Mother of All Battles mosque to rubble, as far as I'm concerned," says Hisham. "But don't touch this shrine."

The broken frame and door of Abu Hanifa's tomb
The door to the Imam's mausoleum was blown open by US forces
The Imam of the mosque, Sheikh Muayyad al-Azimi is sitting in the shade of a cylindrical 1930s clock tower in the mosque compound - it also has a hole punched through it by American ordnance.

It looks like the effect of a tank shell, although the sheikh emphatically says the ordnance came from a US fighter plane.

The attack on the clock tower took place on 11 April, the sheikh says, the day after the Americans had won the fierce battle to take control of Azamiya.

He continues by suggesting two possible reasons behind the attack - the suspicion that resistance fighters might have been sheltering here, and the desire to offend Muslim sensibilities because of an "historical contempt for Islam".

Lucky looter

But the reason I have come here is not to inspect the damage or investigate why the Americans may have acted in this way, though the presence of a burnt-out Iraqi T-52 tank nearby gives a clue.

I have come to explore the new role of the mosque in the post-Saddam era - a power vacuum after 25 years in which the ruling Baath party ruthlessly monopolised political activity.

Looter held by men at Azamiya mosque
Without police, a looter is dealt with in the mosque
Last Friday's demonstration was the biggest and most serious expression of anti-US feeling in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Thousands of Sunnis processed through the streets of Azamiya district. The situation nearly got out of control as marchers confronted US marines, who were forced hurriedly to vacate the scene.

"Such demonstrations will grow if people's lives don't improve quickly," says Sheikh Muayyad. "I mean the tanks on the streets, the lack of electricity and water, thieves operating with impunity, closed schools."

As we are talking, we get a graphic illustration of how the mosque is already filling gaps in the absence of any other authority in the new Iraq.

A suspected looter - suspected because he was seen in the abandoned police station and is not from this part of town - is dragged in by the scruff of the neck and thrown down before us.

The scruffily-dressed suspect is cowering amid the crowd of thick-set local men dressed in long white robes. Every time he swears his innocence he is slapped on the head and told: "Don't swear by God, thief!"

After a few minutes' deliberation, the mosque elders decide the man is to be sent on his way and must never return. With the current atmosphere in Baghdad, he may be lucky to have escaped with his life.

Shia gathering

Outside again, and the traffic is still nose-to-tail towards al-Kadhimiya, alleviated somewhat by volunteers sent by the mosque to direct traffic and try to prevent drivers causing more delays by using the pavement and the wrong side of the road.

So we too join the throng heading north-west over the river Tigris, wondering whether a large Shia gathering will produce the same dynamic as its Sunni counterpart.

The Kadhimiya mosque's golden domes and cluster of golden minarets dominates the Shia populated slums around it.

Men at Kadhimiya mosque
Baghad's Shia are prepared to give the US some time
There is no war damage to the mosque itself. There was no resistance here against troops coming to overthrow the hated Saddam Hussein.

Instead, the inevitable portrait of the Iraqi leader has disappeared from its brick frame and has been replaced by smaller idealised portraits of Shia luminaries such as Imam Ali and Hussein.

Thousands of men and black-robed women are milling about, passing through the mosque's great south-east entrance, and praying in the vast and graceful marble courtyard.

Shared enemy

Immediately you get the impression that, for the moment, the Shia are willing to accept the presence of US armour on the streets of Baghdad.

Their banners proclaim Islamic unity just like in Azamiya, but there's no reference here to the Americans, or "disgrace" and "provocation".

However, conversations quickly turn to the need to bring water, electricity and security to Baghdad, and why did the Americans do nothing about the destruction of the national museum and libraries, but put a ring of steel around the oil ministry.

"Freedom is not just about being able to express your views without fear," says Ahmad Madali, a thoughtful young man who approaches me in the Kadhimiya mosque.

Frame for portrait of Saddam Hussein covered in Shia pictures and banners
At Kadhimiya, Saddam Hussein is replaced by Ali and Hussein
"Freedom is about action, about using our own resources for the benefit of our people. And we are concerned that the Americans have not just come to rid us of the terror of Saddam Hussein, but for their own interests as well."

"Until now our religious leaders in Najaf have told us to co-operate with the Americans to get rid of Saddam," says another man. "But if they tell us to get rid of the Americans too, we will do it."

A block away, a column of American army vehicles gets a warm reception in the Kadhimiya market, receiving smiles, thumbs up and handshakes as they pass through the crowds.

The question is, without security and basic amenities, how long will that goodwill last among the Shia? Among the Sunnis, it seems to have gone already.


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