Reverberations from an Iraq prayer meeting
A local cleric's allegations against US soldiers prompts Iraqi apologies, underscoring postwar challenges.
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But there was more to the sermon beyond the allegations. The cleric, Sheikh Kadim al-Abade, told the peaceful crowd that Shiite religious leaders in Najaf would not accept American control of Iraq and that the only acceptable government in Iraq would be an Islamic government. He said the Shiites are prepared to use force, if necessary, to achieve this aim. The sheikh repeatedly condemned Western culture as a source of pollution that is tarnishing Islamic society.Skip to next paragraph
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"You must attack anything that is not good for Islam," he told the assembled gathering. "This is not terrorism because it is defending Islam."
As the leader spoke, two boys, roughly 10 years old, smiled at a Monitor reporter listening to the sermon. They both drew their first finger across their necks, as if they were wielding knives to cut a throat.
But it remains unclear how the sermon was received by the vast majority of those present. Throughout the sermon, security guards for the Imam Sadr Mosque were standing nearby and were extremely courteous and friendly toward the reporter and US soldiers providing extra security.
Large numbers of residents in these heavily Shiite neighborhoods have continued to cheer and wave at passing US military patrols in their streets. Packs of children still run to American Humvees, voicing one of the only English words they know: "Good, good, good."
Armstrong says that much of the US response to the sermon will come in deeds rather than words. His soldiers will focus on continuing to carry out relief projects that improve the lives of Iraqi citizens.
"We are just going to keep pumping this stuff in - the tangible goodness," Armstrong says.
Among that "tangible goodness" is a US government program to employ 16,000 workers to clean garbage and trash from streets, a US-funded plan to fix the long-neglected sewer system, and delivery by US soldiers of school supplies redistributed from a Baath Party school warehouse.
What made the prayer sermon particularly puzzling to US commanders is that they have been working closely with a Shiite religious leader here to coordinate security and humanitarian efforts. That leader has been authorized by the Shiite religious leadership in Najaf to coordinate with the Americans.
After the sermon, some clerics, including the leader, Kadhim al-Wala, told Americans that much of the content was not authorized by the leadership in Najaf. If the sermon was given without authorization, he said, the prayer leader would be censured. It remains unclear whether the prayer leader has, in fact, been censured.
Military analysts say the Shiite leadership in Najaf may have adopted a strategy of "good cop, bad cop," in which one local cleric is permitted to cooperate with the Americans while others are permitted to attack their credibility to undercut US popularity.
Indeed, among some within the Shiite leadership, there is deep distrust that US forces will not leave Iraq and that the US will use its influence to undercut political efforts by the clergy to establish an Islamic government, analysts say.
At the same time, these analysts say, the Shiite leadership understands that if it doesn't cooperate in some way with the US, the clerics risk being marginalized by those who step forward and receive what is likely to become a flood of aid.