In Iraq, a different Ramadan

SUN JOURNAL

Holiday: After years of war, the Islamic holy month of fasting stirs hope for peace and fear of more instability.

October 27, 2003|By David Lamb | David Lamb,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The holy month of Ramadan arrived on the wings of the crescent moon over the weekend, and after more than 20 years of war, U.N. sanctions and more war under the Saddam Hussein regime, the weary Iraqi people, like Muslims everywhere, will take stock of their blessings and renew their commitment to God.

For one month, the vast majority of Iraqis, along with the rest of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, will fast from dawn to sunset and eschew all forms of indulgence, from tobacco to sexual intercourse. They will cleanse their souls with prayer and ponder the vicissitudes that brought them to this improbable junction in the history of their ancient country: Hussein is gone, Americans are in charge, Iraq is caught between the competing forces of democracy and mayhem.

Daoud Salman, 78, sits in front of his grocery store in the middle-class Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Kahradainn on a recent day, his fingers dancing over a string of prayer beads as he silently recites the 99 names of God.

This Ramadan, he says, will be different from any in many years, and he intends to gather his six children to share a benediction and prayers that Iraq's newfound freedoms portend better days to come.

"I must tell you from my heart, the days under Saddam were very tough," he says. "So for me, Ramadan this year is a gift from God. It would be difficult to tell you how much Shiites suffered under Saddam. But suffer we did, in terrible ways."

Here he pauses. His fingers move faster over the beads. His lip quivers, tears glisten in his eyes and he weeps. Would this Ramadan be remembered for its tranquillity or violence, he is asked. He shakes his head, not knowing. But he is concerned, as are others.

"There are rumors there will be more suicide attacks this Ramadan because someone put it in people's heads they have a better chance of going to heaven as a martyr if they do it during this month," says Zainab Hussein, 24, a computer science student. "Personally, I don't think this is true because most of the casualties are Iraqi and besides, we want stability, not turmoil."

U.S.-led forces plan no changes in their aggressive efforts against the Iraqi resistance, military commanders say. But the midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew in Baghdad will be lifted during Ramadan so Iraqis can while away the wee hours in cafes and visit relatives after breaking their daily fast. And the coalition has given Ramadan bonuses to state workers and has shortened the workday for the month.

"We've made sure that all our units are well aware of the implications of Ramadan, that they understand the rhythms and sensitivities of the holy month," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top coalition commander, says.

The cadence of Ramadan includes people straggling in late to work, growing irritable without food, water or cigarettes during the day and conducting themselves with unusual piety.

Along the crowded street where Salman sits, many Iraqis share the grocer's view that life is improving. They have electricity 16 hours a day, water supplies are adequate, shoppers have money, business is booming and movie theaters have opened.

But in each comment there is a twinge of angst and exhaustion. They dare to hope life is on the mend, but with American tanks on the streets and the potential of violence lurking around every bend, they know the dangers of optimism.

"I think more people will fast more this Ramadan because God got rid of Saddam, and that is a miracle in a way," says Maazin Mohammed, 17, a student. "The resistance will not get us anywhere; it will just cause more suffering. Everyone is a target now because you could be walking down the street and get mixed up in some bomb attack. I'm tired of worrying about my friends and family every time they go out."

Although Muslims, who make up all but a small segment of Iraq's population, consider Ramadan a time of peace, the Prophet Muhammad did not declare that hostilities must cease during the month and excused soldiers at war - as well as pregnant women and the ill - from the fast, which is one of Islam's five pillars of faith.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in fact, chose Ramadan to launch an attack across the Suez Canal in 1973, believing Israel would be unprepared for an assault in the holy month.

In Iraq, much of the active resistance is believed to be made up of Sunni Muslims, who prospered under Hussein.

Back in the Shiite neighborhood of Kahradainn, Salman has moved into the shade of his grocery store. The day has turned sizzling hot, the air laced with fumes and sand. A muezzin's call to prayer pours down from the minaret of a mosque: "God is most great. I testify that there is no god but God."

In the mosque, Sheik Haji Bassabou offers his visitor a can of Pepsi. He says he had built the mosque himself, brick by brick, over several years. When he finished, Hussein's men came and locked him away in prison. Now, he says, he is free, the Shiites are free, Iraq is free - "a Ramadan blessing." But he worries.

"Ramadan is a time for forgiveness and being generous," he says. "But the terrorist people who are among us now do not respect God, and I am afraid they might try to do something. I will ask my people to stop those who want to create violence.

"And for my own Ramadan wish, I will ask that Saddam Hussein is arrested and all this sabotage stops."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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