BAGHDAD — Sheikh Mahdi Ahmed al-Sumaidi was detained in Abu Ghraib prison early this year after a weapons cache was found in his Ibn Taymiyyah mosque. Since released, his anti-US fervor is undiminished. "Neither the occupation forces nor the government they installed is acceptable,'' he says. "The legitimate power is the resistance."
Even so, he is grateful for the US invasion. "God uses many tools,'' he says. "America's brutality has caused many to understand that Islam is the answer to our problems. The only solution is Islamic government."
Sheikh Sumaidi is one of a cadre of Sunni preachers whose star has risen sharply in the past year. No longer constrained or exiled by a repressive regime, they are preaching jihad at key mosques and pushing to make Iraq an Islamic state.
They are still on the fringes of mainstream Sunni practice here. But amid almost daily firefights in the Sunni Triangle, these radical preachers are emerging as the principal Sunni rallying point.
"The Islamists are growing up very quickly among the frustrated and disadvantaged,'' says Sadoun al-Dulame, who runs the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies in Baghdad. "All the violence is allowing extremists to mobilize and try to monopolize political space."
The preachers' opponents call them Wahhabis, after the dominant religious ideology of Saudi Arabia. But many prefer to refer themselves as salafy, which emphasizes their desire to return the Islamic world to the practices that prevailed at the time of Mohammad, which they see as a golden age. While the US project was to mold a secular Iraq friendly to the West, the salafys' religious beliefs are not far from Al Qaeda's.
Now, they're playing an increasingly visible political role. When hostages are taken, diplomats quietly contact them, hoping they can secure their release. When interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi wants to negotiate with insurgents in the war-torn town of Fallujah, now in the hands of Sunni jihadis, he goes through their mosques. And increasingly, when young Iraqi Sunnis seek guidance in dealing with a dislocating and fraught time in their lives, they turn to these mosques.
Hussein al-Khaisi, who runs a small shop selling nuts and dates in Baghdad, is one of scores of Iraqi men whose faith has deepened since the US invasion, and he's now a regular attendant at the small An Nur mosque in Baghdad. "During the US invasion, I saw so much chaos and death that I turned to God,'' he says. "Now there is so much corruption and violence that we need an Islamic government according to sharia. That would stop a lot of the suffering we have now."
Sheikh Ayad Ahmed al-Jubari runs the An Nur mosque and says attendance has grown since the invasion, which he says has helped Iraqis see the truth of Islam. He's also been freer to speak his mind - the regime of Saddam Hussein closely controlled political activity at Iraq's mosques. He says ongoing fighting in the Sunni triangle has drawn more people into his circle.
"The Americans wanted to make Fallujah into a place of terror, but God wanted it to be a place to strengthen the resistance,'' says Sheikh Jubari, who goes on to say that Fallujah is now a place of near-miracles. He says the blood of men "martyred" in the fight against the US smells like perfume and that, somehow, insurgents' weapons seemed to never run out of bullets during the April fighting.
Sheikh Jubari also praises the beheadings of "spies" - like Korean translator Kim Sun Il last month - and says it's appropriate to stage attacks on anyone connected with the US.
Mr. Dulame says it's a mistake to focus exclusively on Sunni groups - pointing out that Shiite religious movements like Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army have used murder and intimidation as well.
But most of the insurgent activity inside Iraq - be it car-bombings of police stations, assassinations of top Iraqi officials, or the gun battle between US soldiers and insurgents early Sunday in the town of Buhriz that left 13 insurgents dead - is now conducted by Sunnis, many radicalized during 17 months of fighting with US forces.
While insurgents continue to fight the hot war in the Sunni triangle, Sunni Islamist preachers in Baghdad are seeking to build a political base. At their forefront is Harith al-Dari, a preacher who returned home from the United Arab Emirates after Hussein's ouster. His family has deep roots here, and his grandfather is said to have murdered a British Army officer in 1920, triggering Iraq's first revolution.
He quickly installed himself in the "Mother of All Battles" Mosque, a sprawling complex Hussein built to celebrate surviving the first Gulf War, complete with minarets shaped like rifle barrels and missiles and with a vast marble representation of Iraq in its main hall, with the words "God grants many victories" written across it.
Sheikh Dari renamed the mosque the "Mother of All Villages," in a reference to Mecca, and established the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group that he hopes will come to rival the Shiite clerical establishment in Najaf. With the surge in kidnappings since the start of the year, they've also become important brokers between foreign officials, the US-installed interim government, and the jihadis thought to be behind most of the kidnappings.
Sheikh Dari has helped release more than a dozen hostages through his contacts, though he and his aides insist that doesn't mean they belong to the insurgency. "We don't have anything to do with these groups that take hostages,'' says Ahmed al-Samarai, Dari's No. 2. "We completely reject these hostage takings and killings. It's not Islamic."
The association has recently been flexing its muscles. Sheikh Sammarai, who is from the tense Sunni town of Samarra, says he led a delegation to meet with Mr. Allawi about 10 days ago to complain about US plans to launch a strike on the town. Though fighting is not as hot as in Fallujah, the town is largely run by anticoalition insurgents.
Fears of fighting spurred thousands to flee the city and he said he prevailed on Allawi to restrain the US forces, who worry the city is evolving into a second Fallujah.
"I told him that if they went in to Samara it would only embarrass the government. He told me he'd do whatever he could to stop violence there." Sheikh Sammarai says most residents who fled have since returned home.
Though fiercely anti-American, the association's rhetoric is less militant than many of the emerging preachers, particularly when it comes to relations with Iraq's Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population. Hard-core salafys reject cooperation with the Shiites and say they deviate from acceptable doctrine.
For instance, after Sheikh Sumaidai took over his mosque, a Baroque building filled with Persian rugs and elegant lanterns that was built in the 1960s to celebrate Baath Party "martyrs," his renaming it "Ibn Taymiyyah" clearly signaled his intent.
Taymiyyah was a 14th-century preacher who has strongly influenced modern militant Islamic movements. He considered violent jihad the highest duty of Muslims, and dismissed practices like those of the Shiites as verging on apostasy, personally leading punitive expeditions against Shiites and other sects.
But Dari and Samarai have sought to build bridges to Shiite leaders. On Friday, Samarai led prayers and called repeatedly for unity between the two sects. "People must stand together and forgive each other. The occupiers don't see any difference between us, and God won't grant us victory unless we unite,'' he says. Samarai says he wants insurgents to focus exclusively on US forces, instead of the attacks that have taken an increasing number of Iraqi lives.
Dari's organization has also come under fire from some erstwhile allies for speaking out against kidnapping and working to get hostages released. An audio tape purported to be from Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant with Al Qaeda ties who the US claims uses Fallujah as a base, attacked Dhari in June for criticizing hostage beheadings.
But Dari's critics say the relative moderation in public masks more extreme ambitions. "They're talking sweetly, but they want to remake this country like Saudi Arabia,'' says a Sunni tribal leader in Baghdad.
Already, more liberal Sunni visits are being constrained. Dulame, the political scientist, spoke a few weeks ago on Al Jazeera against hostage-takers and extremists who, he says, want to deny Iraq the chance at becoming a fully open society. Shortly after that, an envelope with an AK-47 bullet and a note warning him to stop talking arrived at his office. He's since moved to a lower-profile location.
"They'll speak beautifully now, but their goal is to create a closed society that rejects Western values,'' Dulame says. "If overall conditions don't start to improve here, their voices are going to get stronger."