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COLUMN ONE

From Allied to Alienated

A Shiite cleric who fled Iraq for the U.S. returned, euphoric, after American troops invaded. Today, he just wants them gone.

April 28, 2004|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Ayatollah Sayed Mortada Al-Qazwini should be one of America's best friends in Iraq.

A tall, turbaned man with a candid manner and commanding presence, Al-Qazwini was one of the first Shiite Muslim religious scholars to speak out against Saddam Hussein. He lost 15 relatives to Hussein's brutality, and in 1971 he fled Iraq to escape a death sentence.

He settled in Diamond Bar and built Shiite religious, cultural and educational centers in Pomona, Irvine, San Diego and Detroit over the next 18 years. All the while, he marveled at the freedom he enjoyed to practice the faith of his persecuted sect. After U.S. forces toppled Hussein a year ago, Al-Qazwini was ecstatic and went home to help.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people are so happy that Saddam has been put down. The coalition forces saved us," he said then.

Now, a year after his emotional homecoming, Al-Qazwini, 75, is deeply disillusioned. U.S. forces have worn out their welcome by failing to fulfill their promises for democracy, political empowerment and reconstruction, the ayatollah said. He wants them to leave Iraq as soon as possible.

Prices have soared, the streets are filled with trash, gasoline lines remain long and blackouts are still common, he said in a recent interview at his son's home in Rowland Heights.

"The coalition forces are not doing anything about it," he fumed. "With all their power and authority, they're staying silent.

"If the U.S. doesn't improve the situation soon, it's possible that powerful Shia scholars might tell people to resist," Al-Qazwini said. "Right now the Shias are choosing to cooperate, but patience has a limit."

Al-Qazwini represents a window into the heart of Iraqi aspirations -- and mounting frustrations.

His disillusionment developed gradually. In an interview in September, after he had returned from an initial trip to Iraq, Al-Qazwini was still awed by the liberation of his homeland. He was tearful about the miracle that U.S. forces had delivered to him: a chance to set foot again on the sacred soil of Karbala, a southern Iraqi city of more than 1 million people that is home to the holy shrine of Imam Hussein.

For 300 years, his family members had preached and taught in Karbala. During the 20th century, they lived in a home next to the Imam Hussein shrine. During his exile, Al-Qazwini always carried a small cake of Karbala's holy soil in his pocket. It was a reminder of his heritage and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, whom Shiites revere.

Karbala was more than a place; it was a spiritual touchstone where Al-Qazwini felt in direct commune with his beloved imam and where he claims to have received healing miracles. So it was no surprise that the moment Saddam Hussein's regime fell, Al-Qazwini insisted on returning, telling his wary sons that he would buy a rug and sleep in the shrine if need be.

"The first time I saw the dome of Imam Hussein's shrine, I could not control myself," he said, his voice cracking and eyes filling with tears. "I began to talk to him: 'Oh, Imam Hussein, I am your son. I have come from far away to guide my people and country. Please help me.' "

Word soon spread that the ayatollah had returned home. Crowds surrounded him, pulling at his clothes, kissing his forehead, demanding to know where he had been, pleading for speeches and sermons.

The people, he said, were hungry for spiritual teachings, which had been severely repressed under Hussein.

For the last year in Karbala, Al-Qazwini said, he has delivered his teachings twice daily -- after noon and sunset prayers -- at the shrine. He started classes on Islamic law and culture, revitalizing a private seminary that had lain dormant during the Hussein years.

According to Al-Qazwini's son, Moustafa, the family established an orphanage to serve 2,000 children. With friends, the Al-Qazwinis opened a university aimed at giving Shiites the higher education they had often been denied during Hussein's regime; already, 600 students have enrolled.

They dreamed of bigger ventures. The most urgent was a second hospital for the city. In September, the son said they had begun negotiating with potential donors in the Persian Gulf, grant makers in the U.S. government and Iraqi doctors.

"This is the least we can do to give back to Iraq," Moustafa said then. "Our horizons have been broadened in America, where we've seen so many charities and philanthropic institutions. We thought, why not bring them back to Iraq?"

His father added: "This is what brings people to religion -- not just lectures and sermons and admonishing people to do right. It's when they see religion serving their basic needs that they become more compassionate in return."

Six months later, the ayatollah was back in Southern California for a family visit and was recovering from heart bypass surgery. But it was not his health that made him downcast.

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