Reverberations from an Iraq prayer meeting

A local cleric's allegations against US soldiers prompts Iraqi apologies, underscoring postwar challenges.

A squadron of US Army scouts is finding itself drawn into an increasingly complex labyrinth of political and religious intrigue in one of Baghdad's poorest and most volatile neighborhoods.

In reaching out to the local community in Thawra, the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment is forging a cooperative relationship with religious and civic leaders. Their mission: to lay the groundwork for a free Iraq governed by Iraqis. But not all religious leaders in this heavily Shiite Muslim enclave want to cooperate with US forces.

Second Squadron officers were shocked when - after arranging to provide US troops to bolster security at a massive prayer sermon last Friday - a local cleric used the forum to accuse US soldiers of using night-vision goggles to see through the clothing of Iraqi women. He also suggested US troops were passing out candy wrapped with pornographic photographs to Iraqi children. And he said that abducted Iraqi women were being forced to work as prostitutes for US soldiers.

Later in the sermon, the Islamic faithful were invited to engage in terror tactics against US forces.

The prayer sermon was attended by an estimated 30,000 Shiite men who endured 100-plus degree heat to hear the message. Such large gatherings were illegal under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

But rather than moving to arrest the speaker or attempting to shut down such large prayer sermons, American military officials demonstrated that they are different from Mr. Hussein. They told the clerics that they are free to express their views and gather in large numbers, but they should not spread false rumors.

"We are committed to freedom, but they have to be committed to freedom, too," says Lt. Col. Joel Armstrong, the squadron commander. Colonel Armstrong says he also emphasized to the clerics that he and his soldiers respect Islam and are not here to undermine Islamic principles.

The incident's repercussions played out all weekend, with various moderate clerics apologizing to the Americans after US commanders expressed concern about the content of the sermon.

Potential for a positive outcome

The development is important because it is helping to strengthen - rather than undermine - the relationship between the Shiite leadership and Army commanders, according to military officials. "We are at a decisive point," says Armstrong.

In the wake of the sermon, leaders in Najaf issued a religious decree that sermons must be cleared in advance with senior Shiite leaders. The leadership said it did not agree with the accusations made against US soldiers, nor did it support violent action against coalition forces.

The Shiite leaders said any cleric urging otherwise was violating Islamic law.

The allegations leveled in the sermon have been the subject of false rumors in recent weeks. In an effort to end the rumors, American commanders have allowed clerics to look through their night-vision goggles and have investigated rumors about pornography and prostitution.

But there was more to the sermon beyond the allegations. The cleric, Sheikh Kadim al-Abade, told the peaceful crowd that Shiite religious leaders in Najaf would not accept American control of Iraq and that the only acceptable government in Iraq would be an Islamic government. He said the Shiites are prepared to use force, if necessary, to achieve this aim. The sheikh repeatedly condemned Western culture as a source of pollution that is tarnishing Islamic society.

"You must attack anything that is not good for Islam," he told the assembled gathering. "This is not terrorism because it is defending Islam."

As the leader spoke, two boys, roughly 10 years old, smiled at a Monitor reporter listening to the sermon. They both drew their first finger across their necks, as if they were wielding knives to cut a throat.

But it remains unclear how the sermon was received by the vast majority of those present. Throughout the sermon, security guards for the Imam Sadr Mosque were standing nearby and were extremely courteous and friendly toward the reporter and US soldiers providing extra security.

Large numbers of residents in these heavily Shiite neighborhoods have continued to cheer and wave at passing US military patrols in their streets. Packs of children still run to American Humvees, voicing one of the only English words they know: "Good, good, good."

Deeds rather than words

Armstrong says that much of the US response to the sermon will come in deeds rather than words. His soldiers will focus on continuing to carry out relief projects that improve the lives of Iraqi citizens.

"We are just going to keep pumping this stuff in - the tangible goodness," Armstrong says.

Among that "tangible goodness" is a US government program to employ 16,000 workers to clean garbage and trash from streets, a US-funded plan to fix the long-neglected sewer system, and delivery by US soldiers of school supplies redistributed from a Baath Party school warehouse.

What made the prayer sermon particularly puzzling to US commanders is that they have been working closely with a Shiite religious leader here to coordinate security and humanitarian efforts. That leader has been authorized by the Shiite religious leadership in Najaf to coordinate with the Americans.

After the sermon, some clerics, including the leader, Kadhim al-Wala, told Americans that much of the content was not authorized by the leadership in Najaf. If the sermon was given without authorization, he said, the prayer leader would be censured. It remains unclear whether the prayer leader has, in fact, been censured.

Military analysts say the Shiite leadership in Najaf may have adopted a strategy of "good cop, bad cop," in which one local cleric is permitted to cooperate with the Americans while others are permitted to attack their credibility to undercut US popularity.

Indeed, among some within the Shiite leadership, there is deep distrust that US forces will not leave Iraq and that the US will use its influence to undercut political efforts by the clergy to establish an Islamic government, analysts say.

At the same time, these analysts say, the Shiite leadership understands that if it doesn't cooperate in some way with the US, the clerics risk being marginalized by those who step forward and receive what is likely to become a flood of aid.

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