On edge, Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq try to talk it out

A meeting Saturday of Sunni and Shiite clerics revealed a possible piece of common ground: distrust of the US.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In a side building at Saddam Hussein's last great monument to himself - the "Mother of All Battles Mosque" - built at a cost of $10 million with soaring minarets styled after missiles and Kalashnikovs to commemorate his survival of the 1991 Gulf War, a group of Shiite and Sunni clerics have gathered to fight one of Hussein's most divisive legacies.

With the threat of sectarian strife hanging over Iraq's transition, punctuated by mosque takeovers in the southern city of Basra, an explosion at a small Sunni mosque in Baghdad, and the press rife with talk about rivalry across Iraq's great sectarian divide, the imams want to head off potential conflict.

It's the sort of meeting that heralds one of the short-term successes of the US invasion. Hussein worked assiduously to divide Sunni, the national minority who benefited most from his rule, and Shiites, the majority sect who were ruthlessly suppressed during his reign.

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A meeting like this in his time would have ended with arrests and executions.

But it is not a picture that yields uncomplicated good news. In two hours of speeches appealing to their common heritage as Muslims and the powerful concept of the ummah, the idea of a global Islamic community that arches across sectarian and ethnic differences, the comments that draw the most cheers from the 200-odd members of the audience are ones that focus on a Iraq as a nation forged in resistance to occupation.

"We will all stand now in the face of our enemies who seek to divide us,'' says Sheikh Hasan al-Baghdadi, a black- turbaned preacher from the Shiite holy city of Najaf. "The occupiers are creating the problem between Shiites and Sunni. It's the same old conspiracy, divide and conquer."

With shouts of "God is Great" still ringing in the back of the room, Sheikh Hareth Salman Dari, a Sunni who runs a Baghdad mosque, steps to the podium. "Some may think that our history stopped when we were occupied by this great power. But we fought the British, and now will fight the occupiers. The only power that's undefeatable is God. Now we must liberate Iraq."

Concerns over competition between the communities prompted the formation of a task force by the US-appointed Governing Council in late December to work on interfaith relations. "This is a tense and transitional period,'' says council member Ahmad Shia al-Barrak, a Shiite human rights lawyer. "We're not going to get across the bridge to sovereignty without uniting.

At the Mother of All Battles Mosque, renamed the "Mother of All Villages" after Hussein's fall, speaker after speaker ignores Iraq's difficult sectarian history extending over centuries to speak of the current rivalry as stirred up by America to hold power. The speeches may not be entirely accurate, and certainly presage trouble for the US-led coalition as long as it's here, but may serve everyone's long-term interests if they head off the possible civil war that would be the worst outcome of the occupation.

One of the ugly things that happened was a flare-up of sectarian violence in the mixed Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriyeh in December. An explosion at a Sunni mosque killed three, and was followed by the occupation of a Shiite mosque around the corner by a mob of Sunnis.

The cause of the explosion remains unexplained - local Sunnis claim it was an attack by Shiite extremists with ties to the Shiite government of Iran, while local Shiites say they believe Sunni extremists who favor the Wahabbi sect of Saudi Arabia were making bombs in the mosque and accidentally blew themselves up. That view would seem to be bolstered by the arrest of a number of Sunni preachers from the area in recent weeks.

But preachers on both sides have been working to calm a tense situation. "We've been meeting with the Shiite clerics and will keep meeting with them,'' says Faruk al-Batawi, an imam at the mosque where the explosion happened. "We're all delivering sermons urging the people to remain calm."

In their sermons, a recurring concept is resistance to fitnah. The Arab word can mean "civil strife" or "chaos" but in an Islamic context harks back to the desire of the religion's founders to avoid the splitting of the religion that they witnessed in early Christianity. "In our religion, fitnah is worse than killing. We shouldn't let anything divide us,'' says Mr. Batawi.

A week after the explosion, a peace march was held, but the situation remains tense. Rifle-toting guards continue to keep watch from the roof of The Oneness of God Mosque, the Shiite house of worship that was briefly taken over, and the main Sunni mosques in the area are also heavily guarded. A joint council of Shiite and Sunni clerics is continuing to meet.

"In a way, this is a big opportunity for us,'' says Sheikh Saleh Jassin, the spindly and scholarly imam at the Oneness of God. "Before, the regime discouraged these sorts of contacts. Hussein helped Sunnis, and hurt Shiites. But hopefully what we're trying to do here will spread to the rest of Baghdad."

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