Death comes again to Iraq's 'Mother of all Battles' mosque
The Baghdad mosque, where 28 people were killed in a suicide bombing Sunday, is tied to some of the biggest failures, and a few of the successes, of post-Saddam Iraq.
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Some of the biggest failures, and a few of the successes, of post-Saddam Iraq run through the mosque. The mosque was built – with four minarets designed to look like scud missiles – for $10 million in the 1990s, a time when international sanctions were driving millions of Iraqis into poverty. Dubbed the "Mother of all Battles" by Hussein (his phrase for his invasion of Kuwait and crushing defeat there at the hands of a US-led coalition), it was a perfect illustration of his vainglorious excess and disregard for the public welfare. It houses a Quran he claimed was written in his own blood.Skip to next paragraph
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After the US invasion in 2003, the mosque was renamed "Umm al-Qura," or "Mother of all Villages" after a name for Mecca. In January 2004, I attended a meeting of both Sunni and Shiite clerics there designed to cool bubbling sectarian tensions. There were stock appeals to the unity of the community of Islam, the ummah, and ringing rejections of sectarian strife. The most popular rallying point at that meeting, however, was rejection of the United States as an occupier, which prefigured the two-front war the US would soon be drawn into against Shiite and Sunni fighters, who hated the US as much as they hated each other.
At that meeting, I caught my first glimpse of Harith al-Dhari, a Sunni preacher about to take on a glaringly important role. "Some may think that our history stopped when we were occupied by this great power," he said then. "But we fought the British, and now will fight the occupiers. The only power that's undefeatable is God. Now we must liberate Iraq."
I was told Mr. Dhari commanded respect as both an Islamic scholar and as the grandson of a man said to have murdered a British Army officer in 1920, sparking an Iraqi uprising. Dhari had returned home from exile in the United Arab Emirates in 2003, and quickly started building a political base for his extremist views. He took over the mosque (he was the one who renamed it) and founded the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group that had deep ties to the Sunni insurgency. The rhetoric of Islamic unity was soon abandoned.
During the kidnapping spree in the coming years, members of his association became the first port of call for those seeking the release of friends and relatives, and he was often able to deliver results. In 2004 alone, Dhari was able to negotiate the release of at least a dozen hostages. Over time, the mosque and the Adel neighborhood that surrounded it developed a dark reputation. I used to visit semi-regularly to talk politics and religion. One day in the summer of 2005, I emerged from a cordial tea-fueled meeting to find the Monitor's long-term driver ashen-faced. As we pulled away he turned to me and said: "The guards told me I deserve death for working with the infidels." We never went back.
In the coming years, the neighborhood around the mosque devolved into a free-fire zone, with kidnappings and sectarian killings by both Shiite and Sunni militias. Monitor translator Alan Enwiyah was murdered in the area during the abduction of former Monitor reporter Jill Carroll.
In 2007, US forces raided the mosque, making over a dozen arrests. The Association of Muslim Scholars was kicked out. Mr. Samarrai, a founding member of the group who split with it over what he deemed the intolerance of many of its members, was then named the head of the Sunni Endowment, or waqf, a national, semi-official body headquartered at Umm al-Qura that holds mosques and other religious property in trust.
In recent years the mosque has been, well, a mosque again, and Samarrai has been an important voice calling for Iraq's sectarian divisions to be healed.
But the murders there yesterday are a reminder that Iraq's battle for the future continues.