HILLAH, Iraq — After all that has happened in Iraq -- the bombing, the fall of the government, the disruption of services, the looting, the crime and foreign troops in the streets -- the latest affront to many Iraqis is one sentence in one document. All citizens who work for the government are required to sign a document that states, "I will obey the laws of Iraq and all proclamations, orders and instructions of the Coalition Provisional Authority."
In an Islamic society where faith and state are intertwined, many fear this provision is designed to undermine their religion.
Hundreds of residents of this city about an hour's drive southeast of Baghdad took their concerns to the streets Monday in a peaceful demonstration, and their leaders are threatening further protests -- even a call for a nationwide strike -- if the document is not amended. The U.S.-led administration has refused.
"We are afraid that this is paving the way in order for the Americans to abolish our Iraqi and Islamic identity," said Said Adnan Unaibi, who serves as a local representative for one of the two main schools of Shiite Muslim thinking in Iraq. "This represents a provocation of the people."
The Coalition Provisional Authority, as the U.S.-led administration is known, is moving aggressively to assert itself as the sole legal authority in Iraq and to rub out any remnants of the former Baath Party regime. It has drawn a line in the sand, and in order for Iraqis to have a role in the running of their country, they must agree to the conditions laid down by civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III.
One of those involves signing a form that is primarily a denunciation of the now-outlawed Baath Party, which Saddam Hussein relied on as one of his pillars of power. Tucked into the form is the sentence that has infuriated so many Iraqis, not just in this city near the ancient ruins of Babylon but also in Baghdad.
Iraqis want someone to be in charge, but many also chafe at the idea that they have become wards of the United States. That conflict creates a problem for the Americans as they try to enforce rules, restore security and create a normal rhythm of life in a country that they have concluded is not yet ready to run itself.
"They are quite capable intellectually," said Lt. Col. P.J. Dermer, who is working with the civil administration to develop grass-roots democratic practices in Baghdad. "The assets are there. The mentality doesn't exist. They need us. They know it's up to us to walk them through this."
Many Iraqis don't see it that way.
Ali Hussein Ali is a pathologist in Hillah. He was finally going to receive his pay this month when the person giving out the cash asked that he sign the denunciation form. Shiite clerics in the south have issued fatwas, or religious edicts, instructing that the forms not be signed. Ali wanted his money, and he wanted his job, but he also wanted to be true to his faith.
So he penciled in his own addendum: "But it should not contradict Islamic law."
"We will cooperate with an Iraqi government," he said. "They should not try to control our principles."
Ali works in the 17th of July Health Center, a rundown clinic in a walk-up near the center of town. A few doctors, a nurse and a pharmacist work there, although they are short on medicine and patients. They are not short on hostility at their circumstances.
"According to what the U.S. government said, this was a liberation," said Dr. Hamid Naimer, 41, the director of the clinic. "Now that they say American law should be implemented, it means this is an occupation. They didn't say anything about Iraqi law. This is a full occupation."
The south of Iraq is primarily populated by Shiites, a branch of Islam that accounts for more than half the population of Iraq. Hussein, a Sunni, vested power in his religious brethren and oppressed the Shiite majority.
While U.S. troops are being shot at now in Sunni communities in central Iraq, the Marines who patrol this city say almost everything is under control here. One officer said they have not been the targets of any planned attacks.
That has allowed the Marines and the Army unit here to focus on nation-building, rehabilitating infrastructure, giving out gasoline and offering cash gifts of $40 a month to pensioners. It also has meant paying salaries for all 38,000 government employees, a mammoth task.
But the efforts have been at least partially undermined by blanket decisions that have come out of the civil administration. The two major problems arise from the decision to dissolve the Iraqi military, which was the largest employer in the country, and the inclusion of the one sentence in the denunciation form, according to Marines, who have been providing security in the area.
"It's a real issue," Lt. Ernest Adams of the 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment Marines, said of the document. "We are here for the benefit of the Iraqi people. They are afraid we will take their religion away. That's why we are here. To protect them."