BAGHDAD — Sheik Sayed Hassan Al-Naji stood before a crowd of 25,000 Shi’a faithful outside a prominent mosque here Friday, presiding over a prayer service that quickly took on the flavor of a political harangue.
Shouting into a microphone, the black-shrouded cleric branded U.S. leaders “liars.” He insisted American soldiers encouraged looting after the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and participated in some of the thefts themselves. Finally, he urged the throng before him to hew to the orders of their religious leaders – the providers, he said, of food, money and security in a lawless city.
“You must listen to us,” Al-Naji said. “You can trust us. Iraqi cities will be safer only when the people obey their religious leaders.”
As the United States seeks to remake Iraq into a stable, friendly democracy, the biggest obstacle may be the swift rise of clerics like Al-Naji and his fundamentalist allies, who espouse anti-American views, organize protests and openly call for the formation of an Islamic republic along the lines of Iran.
While many Shi’a clerics won’t go that far, they, too, are flexing political muscle after two decades of brutal repression by Saddam’s Sunni Muslim government.
In the weeks since the United States and Great Britain toppled Saddam, Shi’a leaders have dispatched representatives throughout Baghdad and other large cities to assume control of schools and hospitals, to guard buildings and to patrol neighborhoods.
While those moves helped stem widespread looting, Shi’a religious groups now effectively control the institutions, and they show no desire to leave.
“The people need our protection,” said Sheik Maher al-Hamra, a Baghdad emissary of Iraq’s holiest cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. “We think they will need that protection for some time. How long, no one can say.”
Sheik Abbas Hussein Al-Zubeidi, a jaunty 30-year-old with a quick smile, was a religious scholar three weeks ago. Today he is the administrator of Kindi Hospital, where men with assault rifles and pistols mingle with patients.
“This hospital was in terrible shape when we came here,” said Al-Zubeidi, who received his appointment from Moqtadah al-Sadr, a leading cleric in Najaf. “Today it is safe. It has some supplies. People who cannot afford to pay are treated anyway. Do you think that would happen under Saddam?”
Asked how long his position might last, he responded: “I serve at the pleasure of my superiors. I will stay until they tell me to leave. Until then, nothing could move me from here.”
To many in Baghdad, that attitude is decidedly unnerving.
Mohammed Al-Azawi, the dean of Baghdad University’s Institute for Accounting and Financial Studies, said he fears religious interference in the university’s administration and curriculum.
“We don’t want Islamists here,” Al-Azawi said. “It’s not their job to educate students. It is our job, and they will try to transform it into something else entirely. There is no room for religion here.”
The burst of fundamentalism is no less troubling to many Shi’as, who say they don’t want to trade a dictatorship for a theocracy.
“They want to rule everything you do,” said Walid Hashimi, 25, who attended the Friday prayer service run by Al-Naji. “Look at what they say. ‘Listen to us. Listen to us.’ We want to listen to ourselves now. We are tired of listening to other people.”
THE CROSS-BORDER BOND
For the moment, radical clerics appear to be too few in number to achieve an Islamic state. Such a move also would likely be vehemently opposed by the United States and by neighboring Arab countries, whose rulers, mostly Sunni Muslims, worry that a fundamentalist Iraq could have a destabilizing effect on the entire region.
Shi’as make up less than 15 percent of the world’s 1 billion Muslims, but they comprise 60 percent of Iraq’s population and 90 percent of Iran’s.
And while Iranians are not Arabs — a fact that generates some animosity between the countries’ residents — the Shi’a bond remains strong. Grand Ayatolla Ruholla Khomeini, the late Iranian leader, studied for 14 years in Najaf, the cradle of Shi’a Islam, before returning triumphantly to Iran after the fall of the Shah in 1979.
In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Iraq’s Shi’as took refuge in Iran from Saddam’s numerous campaigns of murder and torture. Today, many are returning to Iraq under the banner of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, a group financed by Tehran.
Across Iraq, SCIRI representatives are organizing anti-U.S. protests and handing out fliers calling for the ouster of U.S. troops and the formation of an Islamic state.
Perhaps no group is more fearful of that possibility than Iraq’s Sunnis, who generally lived far better under Saddam.
“If Iraq becomes an Islamic republic, I will take my family and leave,” said Abbas Hussein, 42, a resident of the city’s once-affluent Mansour section. “I have no doubt that the Shi’a will persecute us. I love Iraq, but I will leave the day that happens.”
The enmity between the two groups runs deep, dating to the death of Islam’s founder, Muhammad, in 632. The Shi’a believed the mantle of leadership should pass to the prophet’s son-in-law, Ali. The Sunnis wanted that power distributed to four caliphs chosen by Muhammad’s followers. The factions have been unable to reconcile since.
Even so, many Shi’a leaders today are trying to assuage Sunni fears. Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shi’a cleric, has expressed a willingness to accept a government free of religious control. And while some of his subordinates say otherwise, they are likely to yield to his decision.
GUNS FOR THE SLUM
Even the radical clerics speak occasionally in conciliatory tones.
Sheik Mohammed Al-Fartusi, the leader of Hikmat Mosque in Sadr City, formerly known as Saddam City, said late last week that an Islamic state would treat Muslims, Christians and Jews equally.
He said people should not believe all that journalists write about Shi’as, whom he called a peace-loving people.
“The journalists say we are terrorists,” said Al-Fartusi, 30. “The journalists are evil. They are instruments of Israel.”
Since the war, Al-Fartusi has rapidly gained prominence, becoming one of the best-known imams in eastern Baghdad. His fiery, anti-American diatribes have especially gained traction with the 2 million residents of Sadr City, Baghdad’s most decrepit slum.
While more than half of the capital enjoys at least several hours of electricity every day, Sadr City remains dark all the time. Piles of garbage line the streets, and the water, residents say, is tainted, making entire families ill. The people are angry, and Al-Fartusi is listening and playing to them – and, in some cases, arming them.
At Al-Fartusi’s mosque last week, the cleric’s aides handed out pistols and AK-47s from a cardboard box.
Sheik Khalid al-Kadmi worries more clerics will go the way of Al-Fartusi and Al-Naji if Iraq remains in a state of chaos for much longer. A cleric at Jama Hashimi Mosque in Baghdad’s Kadhimiya section, Al-Kadmi said the United States needs to move far more swiftly to restore services and to arrange a freely elected government.
“Anger breeds fundamentalism,” Al-Kadmi said. “People have limits of patience, and when those limits are reached, the people will turn to hate. If it stays like this, I don’t expect good things for the future.”