Sunni clerics encourage Iraqis to accept duty, join military, police

Bombers damage minaret of historic mosque after holiday celebration

April 02, 2005|By Doug Smith | Doug Smith,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Prominent Sunni clerics who had condemned the new Iraqi government opened the door yesterday to participation of their followers in the army and police.

Their fatwa, or religious edict, offered a ray of hope on a day when bombers damaged one of Iraq's most cherished religious monuments. Thousands of Shiite Muslim pilgrims remained overnight in Karbala rather than risk nighttime attacks on their journey home after celebrating Arbayeen, the end of the sect's holiest period of the year.

Although the Sunni edict came with conditions that made it uncertain whether followers could serve alongside U.S. military forces, an Iraqi government spokesman said it was a clear sign that the clerics have "got the message that the future of Iraq depends on us all standing on the same side."

The shift is not likely to cause a wave of Sunni enlistments, said Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim. Sunnis, who make up about 32 percent to 37 percent of the Iraqi population, are well represented in the Iraqi armed forces, Kadhim said.

But the Sunni religious leaders' decision to recommend a boycott of the January national election was seen as tacit support for the bloody insurgency. Some radical clerics publicly have condoned violence against Americans. Sixty-four Sunni clerics signed the edict declaring, "The security of the people and the country is a duty."

They set three conditions, however, including an order "not to support occupation forces at the expense of Iraqis."

Although that could exclude them from joint U.S.-Iraqi actions, Kadhim said the most important effect of the edict would be on the civilian population.

"It's the people we're after," he said. The edict will help enlist ordinary people who "are not helping us through [providing] information about terrorists and are harboring terrorists."

In Samarra, a city 60 miles north of Baghdad, a bombing yesterday damaged one of Iraq's most distinctive structures, the spiral minaret of the ninth-century Malawiya Mosque. At least two witnesses said the blast opened a hole in the top of the tower, but others described the damage as superficial.

Abbasid Caliph Al Mutawakkil built the 170-foot tower and mosque around 850. The mosque continued in use until the 11th century, but only its exterior wall remains today. The minaret, wrapped in a spiral staircase, stands apart, an august presence among other remnants of the former Abbasid capital, considered one of the world's most important archaeological sites.

In October, U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed the Sunni-dominated city, considered a base for insurgents. A spokesman for the U.S. Army's 42nd Infantry Division confirmed that American forces recently had pulled out of the city. He said the army had made no commitment to protect the site.

Samarra residents said they saw men climb the tower about 6:30 a.m. and leave before the explosion, but it was unclear who the bombers were. Sheik Majid Omar Imam of the Ali Mosque denounced them as "cowards." Others railed at the various parties in the conflict.

"I blame terrorists as well as the government and police because they cannot provide for these historical sites' protection," said Khalid Yousif, an engineer.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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