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Radical Islam grows among Iraq's Sunnis

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 2004


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."

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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.

A receptive ear

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.

The political angle

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.