Shiites rejoice in public acts of faith

Such prayers banned under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim government

War In Iraq

April 12, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BASRA, Iraq - The muezzin's call to prayer that sounded from the main mosque carried the same message of God's greatness heard around the Muslim world, but yesterday, in Iraq's second-largest city, all else had changed.

For the first time in more than three decades, Shiite Muslims here worshipped without fear that agents of Saddam Hussein were listening.

Many gathered outside the Jamia Imam al-Sadiq mosque, itself a potent symbol of repression, having been heavily damaged when Hussein's forces put down a Shiite uprising in 1991. After touching their heads to prayer stones laid on mats strewn on the dusty streets, they stood and hugged, reveling in the rediscovery of open expression of faith. And they voiced gratitude to any foreigner within range for what U.S. and British forces did to make this day possible.

One elderly man pulled a young man in tattered clothes into his arms and the two stood sobbing, their heads against each others' shoulders.

"This is truly an amazing day," said Jasam Hamad, who joined the crowd in prayer. "For 35 years, we had to pray in our homes or in secret, but not anymore."

Although the Shiites are a majority in Iraq, under Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, they suffered years of oppression.

The mosque bears the scars of that past. Its brickwork is marked with bullet holes, and only the base of the minaret survives. The rest was blasted to rubble during the 1991 uprising.

"So many people were killed," said another man outside the mosque, who gave his name only as Hammad and said he was an English teacher. "Six months after the tower was destroyed, we found a body under the bricks," he said, pointing to the spot.

People here say Hussein's repression took other forms as well. Shiites trying to visit the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala were stopped at checkpoints, and local imams were confined to their homes.

While the Sadiq mosque remained open until a year ago, residents said that government agents occupied the adjacent building. "They would send spies to listen and take revenge if someone spoke out of line," Hammad said.

Sheik Sabah al-Saady was only a boy in 1991. "But I witnessed the events and I remember," he said.

Now, as a young imam, he was chosen to address yesterday's gathering. Many of Basra's older clerics have been killed or gone into exile, leaving younger men like Sheik Sabah to lead.

Surrounded by bodyguards, he spoke to the crowd over loudspeakers that sent his voice echoing through the neighborhood's battered alleyways. He exhorted the men to put aside tribal differences and work together to rebuild their country.

He also scolded those who participated in the recent looting that further harmed the city. He said such behavior was forbidden in Islam.

The looting mobs that ravaged Basra this week in the first days after the Baath Party collapsed have largely dissipated, but residents say that thieves with guns remain a big problem. They reported several firefights last night.

The British army has tried to crack down on crime in the past two days. On Thursday, witnesses said, soldiers fired warning shots over the heads of looters at Basra University and, when that failed, they fired near their feet.

As the men gathered today to pray, black smoke from an oil company building downtown, set ablaze by looters, drifted over the rooftops.

Sheik Sabah conceded that it would be difficult to find people to lead the country, but he said that Iraq did not need a religious or tribal leader. "But we do need an educated person," he said.

The names of two tribal leaders, Sheik Mozahim al-Timimi and Sheik Saaboun, have surfaced as possible leaders, selected by the British, in some sort of interim government in Basra. But there appears to be widespread public opposition to the sheiks. Many people say the men took money from Saddam.

But yesterday, the people were happy to simply revel in their new freedom.

"You all have to thank Allah because you have been released from a brutal regime," Sheik Sabah told the crowd. "And now you have to work together to help one another."

Those who could not fit on the overflowing streets listened from rooftops and cheered in one voice when called upon.

"We don't yet know the United States' intention," Sheik Sabah said in an interview after the service. "But they came and freed the people and destroyed the regime, and, for that, we thank them."

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