Army officer struggles to win trust of Iraqi imam wary of U.S. motives
Today's dispatch from reporter Hal Bernton and photographer Thomas James Hurst comes from the town of Ad Dujayl.
By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter
|THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES|
|Sunni imam Mohamed Ibrahim takes a dim view of the U.S.-led occupation of his country, saying Iraqis "should be free to live the life they choose."|
AD DUJAYL, Iraq U.S. soldiers can go and come almost anywhere they please, but there is one place in this small town they do not enter. The exception is a 300-year-old Sunni Mosque topped with green minarets that soar above the small shops along a grimy boulevard.
It is here that the imam has asked that uniformed U.S. soldiers not enter his tiled sanctuary.
This imam bears no loyalty to Saddam Hussein. At 25, he spent 40 torturous days in prison under the old regime. But he also wants no part of what he sees as a U.S. occupation of Iraq.
"The Americans are here for their own strategic benefits," Mohamed Ibrahim said through an interpreter. "Iraqi people are not stupid. They can come up by themselves with their own system of government, and they should be free to live the life they choose."
In the void left by the collapse of Saddam's dictatorship, Ibrahim and other Sunni imams are trying to claim a leadership role and struggling to find their way in a nation undergoing sweeping political and social change.
Some Sunnis, who once put their faith in Saddam, are finding new faith in religion.
Aspects of Islam
Sunni Muslims account for 85 to 90 percent of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims, and although a minority in Iraq, Sunnis have ruled there for centuries. With Saddam Hussein's downfall he was a Sunni from the north the community in postwar Iraq fears losing its long-held position of power.
Religious beliefs: Sunnis believe the first four caliphs, or supreme religious leaders, were the rightful successors of the Prophet Muhammad and have elected subsequent leaders based on Islamic political realities. Sunnis have no central religious authority, and, in contrast to Shiites, Sunni leaders do not adhere to a strict line of succession.
Shiite Muslims make up roughly 10 percent of the world's Muslims and are the largest sect in Iran. In Iraq, they make up about 60 percent of the nation's 25 million inhabitants. Pockets of Shiites also exist in Syria, East Africa, Lebanon, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. The most exalted leaders, called ayatollahs, sometimes exert their strong authority in the political arena.
Religious beliefs: Shiites believe that true leaders of Islam must be descendants of Ali, the fourth caliph and Muhammad's son-in-law.
Wahhabism is a puritanical strain of Islam, appearing as a reform movement in Arabia in the 18th century and named after its founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Wahhabism was adopted in 1744 by the Saudi royal family, and the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 secured the movement's dominance on the Arabian Peninsula. The Taliban and followers of Osama bin Laden subscribe to this brand of Islam.
Religious beliefs: Wahhabis set out to "cleanse" Islam of any developments since the time of Muhammad, and return it to its original "true" form. They advocate a strict, literal reading of the Quran and Hadith as the sole source of doctrine. Wahhabi creed dictates many aspects of behavior and dress; for example, it prohibits music, dancing, shaving, smoking. Women are allowed few rights. Punishment for crimes follows Quran guidelines, including beheading and stoning.
Source: Compiled from Times news sources
by researcher Gene Balk
"More people come to the mosques," Ibrahim said. "They are doubtful and suspicious. They have no idea what will take place politically in this country, so they come to speak with us. To have some faith in how their lives will be."
The Sunnis are an Iraqi minority whose Muslim sect throughout the past century formed the nation's ruling class. Saddam is Sunni. But rather than build up the power of the imams, he built himself up as the all-powerful leader of the Baath party.
Today, Iraq remains a far more secular society than the neighboring Muslim nations of Saudi Arabia and Iran. And in recent weeks, some Sunni religious leaders have called for an end to the insurgency and a new focus on assuring a Sunni role in the U.S.-backed political process.
Army officials are keeping a wary eye on Sunni imams, fearing they will emerge as recruiters for a new wave of insurgents driven by religious fervor rather than loyalty to a political leader. In raids last week in Baghdad, the U.S. Army arrested some Muslim clerics, and officials reported that some mosques are being used as meeting grounds and weapons caches for anti-U.S. forces.
Ibrahim's mosque is in one of the few towns in central Iraq that is largely Shiite. Yet due to Saddam's persecution of Shiites, they have no formal mosques in town, only smaller centers where they gather for prayer.
Ibrahim's mosque is the most impressive Muslim place of worship. U.S. officials said he wields considerable influence over Sunni mosques across a wider swath of central Iraq. Like the traveling preachers of the Old South, Ibrahim moves from village to village to lead prayer services and forge ties.
U.S. Army officials said they are unsure what to make of Ibrahim. They have found no evidence he's directly involved in the insurgency, and they hope to find some common ground and get him involved in building an Iraqi government.
A breakthrough meeting
Though banished from the mosque, Capt. Jim Riely, with the 4th Engineers Battalion out of Fort Carson, Colo., has met Ibrahim three times at the town police station. The most recent meeting was last week, when he was joined by a reporter and photographer from The Seattle Times.
Ibrahim refused to shake Riely's hand on two previous meetings. This meeting is more cordial as they share tea in the police chief's office. Ibrahim says he had been called to that office several times by the old regimes and much prefers to face an American in the room.
"It's much easier to discuss things with you than to talk with the Baathists," Ibrahim says.
Ibrahim, 48, is lean, with finely chiseled features, a salt-and-pepper beard and wears a white turban. Some say he bears a striking resemblance to Osama bin Laden. He laughs at the suggestion, recalling the time he was stopped at night by a U.S. soldier, who shined a flashlight in his eye and asked, "Are you bin Laden?"
Ibrahim is quick to differentiate his views from that of bin Laden, saying the attacks on the World Trade Center could not be justified by Islam.
He also says there could be no justification for the civilian deaths that have occurred during the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Asked if he could support the killing of U.S. soldiers to drive out the Americans, he answers with a question of his own: "What would you do if Iraqi soldiers invaded America?"
But as the meeting progresses, it is clear Ibrahim does not want to be left out of the U.S.-led political process to govern the new Iraq. He is concerned that the new local city council appointed by the Army is made up only of Shiites, and he is eager for the Americans to make good on their promise for local elections. He wants them soon, so the Sunnis can help to select a delegation that will head to Baghdad to help plan the national government.
"You have to take into consideration that there are Sunnis, and they need to be involved," Ibrahim says. "And once you have elections, things here will begin to calm down."
He says his vision of a new Iraq is not to create a state like Saudi Arabia, where fundamentalist Islam rules all aspects of political and social life. He says Iraq is a different place, and there must be respect for all religions.
Riely tells Ibrahim the Army will try to hold the elections this month and says he hopes for more meetings.
"I enjoy talking about religion, and about politics, with him," Riely tells a translator. "So whenever he wants to talk, please tell him to come to me."
Ibrahim then takes a step toward rapprochement.
For the first time, he shakes the hand of a U.S. soldier.
"I do this because I think that you are a man with a good heart," Ibrahim says.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company
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