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Reverberations from an Iraq prayer meeting

A local cleric's allegations against US soldiers prompts Iraqi apologies, underscoring postwar challenges.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 2003


A squadron of US Army scouts is finding itself drawn into an increasingly complex labyrinth of political and religious intrigue in one of Baghdad's poorest and most volatile neighborhoods.

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In reaching out to the local community in Thawra, the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment is forging a cooperative relationship with religious and civic leaders. Their mission: to lay the groundwork for a free Iraq governed by Iraqis. But not all religious leaders in this heavily Shiite Muslim enclave want to cooperate with US forces.

Second Squadron officers were shocked when - after arranging to provide US troops to bolster security at a massive prayer sermon last Friday - a local cleric used the forum to accuse US soldiers of using night-vision goggles to see through the clothing of Iraqi women. He also suggested US troops were passing out candy wrapped with pornographic photographs to Iraqi children. And he said that abducted Iraqi women were being forced to work as prostitutes for US soldiers.

Later in the sermon, the Islamic faithful were invited to engage in terror tactics against US forces.

The prayer sermon was attended by an estimated 30,000 Shiite men who endured 100-plus degree heat to hear the message. Such large gatherings were illegal under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

But rather than moving to arrest the speaker or attempting to shut down such large prayer sermons, American military officials demonstrated that they are different from Mr. Hussein. They told the clerics that they are free to express their views and gather in large numbers, but they should not spread false rumors.

"We are committed to freedom, but they have to be committed to freedom, too," says Lt. Col. Joel Armstrong, the squadron commander. Colonel Armstrong says he also emphasized to the clerics that he and his soldiers respect Islam and are not here to undermine Islamic principles.

The incident's repercussions played out all weekend, with various moderate clerics apologizing to the Americans after US commanders expressed concern about the content of the sermon.

Potential for a positive outcome

The development is important because it is helping to strengthen - rather than undermine - the relationship between the Shiite leadership and Army commanders, according to military officials. "We are at a decisive point," says Armstrong.

In the wake of the sermon, leaders in Najaf issued a religious decree that sermons must be cleared in advance with senior Shiite leaders. The leadership said it did not agree with the accusations made against US soldiers, nor did it support violent action against coalition forces.

The Shiite leaders said any cleric urging otherwise was violating Islamic law.

The allegations leveled in the sermon have been the subject of false rumors in recent weeks. In an effort to end the rumors, American commanders have allowed clerics to look through their night-vision goggles and have investigated rumors about pornography and prostitution.