Outside a mosque, Sunnis critique the new Iraq

Under Saddam, the Sunni minority enjoyed favored status. Now they find themselves outnumbered on the Governing Council.

The young man in the wispy beard and the blue-gray dishdasha - an ankle-length tunic worn by Arab men - listened for more than an hour as two reporters quizzed men entering a Baghdad mosque. The conversations concerned the war, the US presence in Iraq, and the politics of transition.

The man was selling religious books and pamphlets laid out on the sidewalk in front of the mosque. No one was buying. He motioned to the reporters' interpreter to come over to him.

"Tell them," he instructed, "that there will come a day when all the Americans will be hanging from the gates."

Of all the things people said to me during a recent three-week stay in Baghdad, this man's comment stands out for its imagery, its certainty, and its sweep. His words suggest that the opposition to the American project in Iraq will not subside easily.

The Hassanein Mosque - in a middle-class, largely Sunni neighborhood of the Iraqi capital called Al Amiriya - was an ideal place to try to understand that opposition. Iraq's Sunnis make up perhaps 20 percent of the population, although the country has had no reliable recent census. They enjoyed favored status under the rule of former President Saddam Hussein. And today they constitute the group least happy to see the Americans running the country.

The Amiriya neighborhood is also the location of an air-defense shelter that US forces bombed during the 1991 Gulf war, killing 400 civilians. The US later said it struck the shelter in error.

Most of what the mosque-goers said conformed to expectation, as did a sermon devoted to jihad, or holy struggle, but there were some surprises.

One was the bookseller's prophecy. Another was the comment of a local teacher - who spoke in English, perhaps so others huddled around him wouldn't understand. He had some advice for the US authorities in Iraq: Raise the standard of living. "This," he said, "will make the Iraqi people love American forces."

But talk of loving the Americans was the exception. The rule was the assertion that the occupying powers are unfairly promoting the interests of Iraq's Shiite muslims and fomenting sectarian discord.

"They are causing the disputes between Sunni and Shiite," said Samir Mohammed Mahmoud, a retired official of Iraq's Finance Ministry. He said he regretted that the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US-led administration running Iraq, had not found a way to hold elections to establish the Governing Council, a group of 25 Iraqis the US selected through closed-door consultations. "The Americans provided the Shiite with the opportunity to take a large part of the [Governing] Council."

Shiites hold 13 of the council's seats. Many Shiite leaders say that they should get the power that they deserve in the new Iraq. Shiite Muslims constitute some 60 percent of Iraq's population, and have long been politically repressed.

As a result, Mr. Mahmoud argued, "no one agrees with this [Governing] Council, not even the Arab countries." The 22-member Arab League has refused to recognize the council, although some Arab states have indicated a willingness to work with the group without extending any formal approval.

"The British government came and occupied us in the 1920s," Mahmoud elaborated. "They used policies to separate Shiite and Sunni - it seems the Americans are using the same idea now."

"We've gotten over this thing of Sunni and Shiite," added a white-bearded, white-robed gentleman who declined to give his name but said he held a doctorate. "[The Americans] want us to be more and more divided."

"The Governing Council doesn't represent all Iraqi people; it's a sectarian council. Especially the Sunni [members] - they are exiles, they came in on American tanks," he continued.

The other complaints had been heard before: There is no security in the streets; municipal services are erratic or non-existent; US soldiers treat Iraqis in a humiliating fashion; with the eradication of the old power structures, there is no one to turn to for help from the government.

That's when English teacher Ali Sabah made himself heard. "We need government," he pleaded. He said he spoke for himself and others when he said that he thought the Governing Council was "very good," a collection of educated people who understand the suffering of the Iraqis. The problem was that the Council was "only saying [things] ... and not doing anything."

Sheikh Adnan Abdul Wahab, the imam of Al Hassanein, gave a sermon that called for jihad against "tyranny and occupation." He asked for sacrifice, and "not only by talk and speeches."

The sheikh did not refer to the Americans or offer any specific advice on how to carry out his idea of jihad. "All must fight against occupation and God says that if someone dies fighting for his country or his religion, he will be rewarded in a second life," he counseled, as his listeners sat impassively in neat rows inside and outside the mosque.

After prayers had ended, the bookseller, Abu Bakr al-Mehdawi, elaborated on his views, saying that the British had imported Shiites into Iraq and that Iran had forced Iraqis to convert to Shiite Islam. "All Iraqis," he asserted, "are all Sunnis."

Some men leaving the mosque overheard his remarks.

"Don't listen," one cautioned. "He's a fanatic."

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