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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April, 2004, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
US dilemma over Iraq's mosques
Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad, which was damaged by US firepower
US attacked a number of Sunni mosques during the war to oust Saddam
US forces battling the insurgency in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Falluja face similar dilemmas over the issue of mosques in combat zones. BBC religious affairs correspondent Jane Little looks at what Islam actually has to say about attacking mosques or using them in battle.

In one fierce battle in the Iraqi city of Falluja on Monday, American marines used a tank to destroy the minaret of a mosque they said insurgents were using as a base.

It was a provocative move, but Islam does not consider mosques to be sacred spaces in the same way as Christianity views its churches.

"Islam does not have the right of consecration or deconsecration," says professor of Islamic studies at Cambridge University, Abdul Hakim Murad.

"A mosque is not quite like a church; in fact the Prophet said that the whole earth has been made a mosque for his people."

Mosques are, nevertheless, places of refuge and powerful symbols.

Because the great saints are located in Najaf, there is a sense that the ultimate sanctities of the Islamic religion are infringed
Professor Abdul Hakim Murad
Cambridge University Professor of Islamic Studies
Professor Murad says it is that - rather than what classical Islam says - that matters to many Muslims.

"The US is perceived as being in the grip of an evangelical Christian administration that wishes to flood Iraq not just with soldiers and oil technicians but also with Christian missionaries," he says.

"So the sight of a minaret tumbling to the ground really confirms in many people's eyes that the Americans are targeting Islam."

'Powder keg'

In this volatile mix of religion and politics, it is the Iraqi city of Najaf that presents the biggest problem for Americans.

There, the radical young cleric Moqtada Sadr is holed up with his followers and they are making the most of its status as a sacred Shia city, resting place to the most important martyrs of the faith.

The Imam Ali mosque in Najaf
Shia shrines - such as the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf - pose a particular problem for US forces
Sheikh Jalil al-Nouri, a key aide of Mr Sadr's, spoke to Egyptian radio.

"It is a holy city, everyone believes that the city of Najaf is one of unique historical, cultural and religious characteristics.

"Nobody should ever desecrate it, let alone have infidel troops marching on that land."

He also denied they were storing weapons in holy places, but with Mr Sadr threatening suicide missions and US forces poised on the edge of the city - not yet daring to cross the red line drawn by Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - it is a potential powder keg, as one commentator put it.

BBC regional analyst Sadeq Saba says the Shia leadership is angry at Mr Sadr for putting the holy sites at risk.

He says some grand ayatollahs in the city - such as Ayatollah Sistani - are unhappy as they don't want this young radical cleric using Najaf for his purposes.

This is particularly because most of his followers are from Baghdad, not Najaf, and have only arrived in the past three or four weeks, he adds.

Honour and pride

Mr Sadr is rumoured to be hiding in the shrine of Imam Ali, an important figure in Shia Islam, is buried.

Radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr
US forces are committed to capturing or killing Moqtada Sadr
If he is there, he is not the first to use it as a sanctuary.

The Shia took refuge there during their uprising in 1991. Saddam Hussein's troops attacked the shrine and damaged it.

But if the Americans did that, it would be far worse - more so, says Abdul Hakim Murad, than damaging a mosque in Falluja.

"In Islam, the sense is that sanctity appears in people more than places and buildings," he says.

"And because the great saints - particularly of the Shia denomination - are located in Najaf, there is a sense that the ultimate sanctities of the Islamic religion are going to be infringed by the Americans.

"This, of course, could trigger a very fierce and desperate reaction," he adds.

The Americans have held back from going in to what one commander called the Shia Vatican.

But they are committed to capturing or killing Mr Sadr.

Honour and pride on both sides are at stake, but for the Americans so, too, is the dwindling support of the Shia community in Iraq.

It would almost certainly side with Mr Sadr, if pushed to do so.


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