Baghdad night curfew lifted during Ramadan

Other parts of country may follow suit during Muslim holy month

October 25, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's American overseers said yesterday that they would lift the nighttime curfew on Baghad's 15 million residents beginning tomorrow, to accommodate the country's Muslims during Ramadan and demonstrate that Iraq is returning to normal despite the persistent armed resistance to the occupation.

The announcement coincided with the arrival in Iraq yesterday of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, whose itinerary was choreographed to highlight successes that the Bush administration complains have been ignored.

Military commanders have instructed soldiers to keep a low profile during the month of Ramadan out of respect for religious sensibilities. But they also warned that Ramadan could bring an increase in attacks, either from religious militants who associate the period with heralded acts of martyrdom or from guerrilla fighters.

The continuing threat was highlighted yesterday, when three U.S. soldiers were killed and four wounded in two attacks north of Baghdad. In Samarra, two members of the 4th Infantry Division were killed in a mortar attack that also wounded four others. In the city of Mosul, a soldier with the 101st Airborne Division was killed by small-arms fire, according to military officials.

Ramadan begins with the first sighting of the new crescent moon, a moment expected to arrive here yesterday evening or this weekend. Saddam Hussein used to decree the start of the fast and brooked no dispute.

This year, Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslims will hear the word from their own clerics, who have hinted they may well differ by a day in their proclamations.

Baghdad has been under curfew since it fell to U.S.-led troops six months ago, leaving the capital's streets deserted after midnight except for military and Iraqi police patrols.

Officials with the occupation administration said, however, that crime had decreased to the point that they were willing to experiment by lifting the curfew for Ramadan, leaving the option of reimposing it for security considerations.

In other parts of the country, individual military commanders will be free to do the same, according to their own assessments. Soldiers have also received briefings from their commanders and Muslim clerics on the traditions of Ramadan.

"It's in part due to an improvement in the overall security situation, now that there is a police force on the streets, and an evaluation by military and Iraqi police," said a spokesman for the U.S.-led authority. "And it's being done in time for the whole month of Ramadan to help facilitate better travel," and for people to spend time with family and friends during the month.

Muslims believe that the Quran, Islam's holy book, was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during Ramadan. It is meant to be a time of fasting, reflection and prayer, with Muslims traditionally capping each day of abstinence with a night of family feasts and visits.

Religious leaders said they were not concerned that the absence of a national telephone system - Iraq's was destroyed by U.S. bombs during the war - might make it difficult to spread the news once the crescent is spotted somewhere in the countryside.

In preparation, they have set up their own relay service of Thuraya satellite telephones, which sell for about $700 apiece in Iraq.

"If someone sees the crescent, he will go to his local sheik with two witnesses and there will be a list of Thuraya phone numbers for sheiks in different towns and sheiks in Baghdad," said Moayed al-Adami, imam of the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad, a revered shrine for Iraq's Sunni Muslims.

Ali al Musawi al Waaf, a Baghdad representative of the leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said the Shiites have made similar preparations.

Like many Shiite clerics, Sheik Waaf said he was persecuted by the former regime, spending 23 years under house arrest.

"During the days of Saddam, he acted like the supreme religious leader of the country and he would declare Ramadan according to his personal choice," he recalled. "But those times, I'd pick up the phone and call the grand ayatollah to ask when it was Ramadan. And people would come to my house, knock on the door, and whisper, `Has Ramadan started?' And I would tell them."

Earlier this week, special instructions went out to each American military unit counseling soldiers to expect more than the usual celebratory gunfire and to avoid "callous or disrespectful attitudes."

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