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Among Shiites, Anti-U.S. Activists Gain Momentum

Experts see a widening schism, pitting pragmatists who seek only to rebuild their lives against hard-core foes of Iraq occupation.

October 10, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Only six months ago, many among Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority regarded Americans as saviors who had freed them from a long nightmare of religious persecution and political repression under Saddam Hussein.

Today, in the streets of a sprawling Shiite slum on Baghdad's outskirts known as Sadr City, quiet expressions of gratitude toward the U.S. can still be heard. But in an ominous sign for the U.S.-led provisional administration in Iraq, such sentiments are increasingly being drowned out by voices raised in anger over the American presence.

Even before a deadly car bomb ripped through a police compound Thursday in Sadr City, the Shiite community was roiling with discontent. Earlier this week, huge, unruly demonstrations broke out in the heart of Baghdad over the U.S. detention of a Shiite cleric accused of inciting and aiding violent resistance to the American-led occupation.

The arrest came at a sensitive time, just days before the start of an annual Shiite pilgrimage whose holiness is considered second only to the Muslim prayer and fasting month of Ramadan. And it only compounded the hard feelings stemming from an incident in Sadr City in August, when a U.S. helicopter crew intentionally knocked down a religious banner from a tower. That action triggered a deadly clash with American troops.

But the reasons for Shiites' disaffection with Americans run far deeper, according to analysts who track the swirling currents in Iraq's complex world of religious politics as well as to ordinary adherents of this austere stream of Islam.

In Sadr City, many Shiites speak in aggrieved tones of feeling misunderstood by the American authorities -- painted in broad brushstrokes, they believe, as fanatics who seek to create a theocracy to rule Iraq.

Shiites make up about 60% of Iraq's 24 million people, but many now anticipate that as a postwar power structure takes form, they may be denied political clout commensurate with their numbers. Instead, they fear, minority Sunnis will continue to call the shots, as they did throughout the Hussein era.

"The United States is worse than Saddam," said 23-year-old storekeeper Isam Lafta, marching Thursday on the first leg of a pilgrimage to the sacred city of Karbala, 55 miles to the southwest -- one of several holy journeys in the course of the year that Shiite faithful believe they are called upon by God to make.

Such displays of religious devotion were banned under Hussein, but joy in that newfound freedom didn't prevent resentment from boiling to the surface as the pilgrims, turbaned or veiled, wrapped in billowing black robes, began their hot, dusty, three-day walk.

"The Americans, they come and say they want peace, justice and freedom while they are doing the exact opposite, because what we do doesn't serve their interest," Lafta said. "Saddam was more straightforward."

Physically, Sadr City looks much as it did before the war: a teeming, desperately poor enclave of nearly 2 million people, whose air is choked with smoke and whose rutted, garbage-strewn streets run with raw sewage in the wet season. Unemployment remains rampant, and religious fervor offers a ready escape from a squalid, dead-end reality.

"There was nothing for us before, and there's nothing for us now," said Riad Jaber, 26, who like almost everyone in his circle is jobless.

In such a climate of hopelessness, whatever power structure exists is regarded with deep suspicion, and any incident of violence -- including Thursday's bombing -- gives rise to a rash of conspiracy theories.

Coalition authorities suspect that the blast was staged in reprisal for the Iraqi police force's cooperation with the occupiers. But Jaber and others saw another culprit.

"The Americans did this, you know," Jaber said in an urgent whisper, glancing around at the angry crowd that gathered outside the police station in the wake of the blast. "Their helicopter was right overhead, and then the explosion came. It is all perfectly clear to everyone."

Scholars see a widening schism in the Shiite community, pitting pragmatists who seek only to rebuild their lives against hard-core ideological opponents of the U.S.-led occupation.

"I think that among the Shia, you have a silent majority, people who are neutral, who are simply waiting to see what will happen," said Mustafa Alani, an associate fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies. "But you have a very vocal sector who believe their legitimacy within the society as a whole is better served by condemning the occupation."

"I don't think the pro-U.S. elements are very strong now," he added. "They are afraid of losing ground, losing credibility."

Those who are seen as accommodating American interests are being made to pay the price.

Jaseem Mohasin, a Shiite policeman who was in the police compound at the time of Thursday's blast, suffered cuts from broken glass and shrapnel.

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