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In the shadow of Hussein's mosque, parties blossom

A gargantuan, half-finished structure becomes an unlikely home base for groups vying for influence in postwar Iraq

By Hassan Fattah / May 20, 2003



Not far from the Tigris River, the skeleton of Al Rahman mosque punctures the Baghdad skyline, towering over nearby luxury homes and serving as a potent symbol of Saddam Hussein's rule. Twenty stories high, with 64 domes, and set on some 100 acres, the mosque is at once awe-inspiring and grotesque.

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Yet for a handful of Iraqi political parties whose offices encircle the mosque, the half-built structure is a daily reminder of the continuing influence of Saddam's legacy in Iraqi politics.

Four years ago, Mr. Hussein set out to create the largest mosque ever built - as big as two football fields. The Saddam Mosque, recently renamed, was to be the crowning achievement in his campaign to bolster his Islamic credentials.

Billions of dollars in the making, the mosque now rests half built, cranes still looming above the scaffolding, presenting its neighbors with a conundrum: You can destroy pictures and statues of Hussein, but you can never destroy a mosque.

The irony is not lost on the members of the political parties skirting the structure. In mid-April, US-backed Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress opened its headquarters on the northeast corner; Adnan Pachachi's Independent Democratic Party established itself along the southwestern corner in early May. Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim's Shiite SCIRI party opened a regional office in an abandoned house one block away; a few blocks in the other direction, the Kurdish Democratic Party opened a branch in an old office building.

Inside the mosque itself, the Shiite Hawza, a clerical organization, opened its doors just days after the regime fell, leading Friday prayers, running an Islamic school, and supporting political activities.

But the site is not necessarily an easy place to work. When Abbas Fathil, an employee of the INC, sets his sights on the gargantuan structure, he recalls the torture and punishment he once faced at the hands of Hussein's jailers. "This mosque is the very symbol of the hypocrisy and cruelty of Saddam," says Mr. Fathil, who escaped death when he was released in November in Hussein's unprecedented amnesty of Iraqi prisoners. People who have gone through the mosque's foundation have found hidden tunnels and ominous cavernous spaces, he notes. "He was trying to appear religious above ground, while underground he had prisons. What more is there to say?"

Yet when Abu Abdullah al-Kawbi, secretary of Al Hawza, walked into the mosque a few weeks ago, he was overcome by a sense of opportunity.

"When the regime fell, this unfinished building went empty and we saw an opportunity in it," says Mr. Kawbi. "It was unfinished, but we came to pray in it anyway. It become a Shiite mosque, a mosque for us."

Long the focus of Saddam's subjugation, many of Iraq's Shiites saw the mosque as the ultimate insult, providing Sunnis with yet another place of worship even as Shiites were being denied a place of their own. .

"Before, all our places of worship were small and cramped and we had to pray in the streets," Kawbi says. "We think it is the right of the Shiites in Iraq to have a full mosque [to pray in]. We will ask whatever government that is formed to finish this mosque [for us]."

The mosque cannot be demolished, most of its neighbors agree. Yet completing it would come at a pricetag Iraq can ill afford. And turning the mosque over to Al Hawza threatens to ignite growing animosities among ethnic groups.

Those issues only highlight the challenges to come, Fathil says. "It is a reminder that nothing yet has [really] changed; we still have a long way to go in this country."

Basil al-Naqib, a strategist with Mr. Pachachi's party, is of like mind. When he locks onto the mosque, he remembers the conundrums Iraq will confront. "It is as if [he] tried to build the pyramids," notes Mr. Naqib. "He built huge mosques on the idea that they wouldn't be hit [by the Americans], that it would remain a symbol of him even if he were killed."

As time passes, hopes one of Al Rahman's neighbors, the mosque will cease to be a symbol of the former dictator and will simply represent Iraq. Until then, say many who face the structure, Saddam may continue to tower over Iraqi politics.

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