Radical Islam grows among Iraq's Sunnis
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."