Jihad rising in Islamic holy month

Attacks and Mideast travel warnings spread as Ramadan begins.

A wave of suicide-bomb attacks in Baghdad kills more than 30 people and wounds 200. The same day, Lebanese Hizbullah fighters bombard Israeli army positions along the border with the Golan Heights. The US urges Americans to take extra precautions or avoid travel to Saudi Arabia and Syria.

The connection between these incidents? The onset of the fasting month of Ramadan - the holiest period in the Islamic calendar, and a time for Muslims to renew their commitment to God. For the vast majority, it is an opportunity to express their obligation to Islam's five pillars: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage.

But for Islamic militants, Ra- madan allows them not only to reaffirm their religious observance but to strengthen their political ideological convictions as well. "Ramadan is a month of commitment and renewal to their faith and also to their cause, whether by military or nonmilitary jihad," says Prof. Nizar Hamzeh, a specialist on political Islam at the American University of Beirut. "It is a month of martyrdom and commitment to one's Islamic ideology."

Throughout Islamic history, Ramadan has been seen as a time of victory for Muslim armies - and a period when those who are martyred have a greater assurance of a place in paradise.

It is precisely that perspective that has spurred Washington to warn of possible attacks against Americans in the Arab and Islamic world during Ramadan, particularly given the intense hostility in the region toward the US.

"The US government continues to receive indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests, including the targeting of transportation and civil aviation," the US Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said in a statement Tuesday. "The Department of State warns US citizens to defer nonessential travel to Saudi Arabia," it added.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah reminded Muslims that Ramadan is a time for good deeds. And the kingdom's highest religious authority told citizens to avoid violence. "Seeking to disturb security or subject Muslim countries to instability is forbidden, and a Muslim must not seek to do so," Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh said this week.

The attacks against targets linked to the US-led occupation of Iraq have been unrelenting since Ramadan began Monday, with coordinated suicide bombings of the headquarters of the International Committee for the Red Cross and four Iraqi police stations. On Tuesday, six civilians died in a suicide-bomb attack next to a police station in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad. Other attacks have been reported in Mosul, Kirkuk, and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a prominent Sunni cleric in Sidon, in south Lebanon, says that Ramadan is perceived by all Muslims as "the month of jihad." "It is not the Islamic way to bomb places like the Red Cross or Iraqi police. But in principle, Ramadan is a blessed month and known as a month for jihad."

But he adds that Muslims have different interpretations of what constitutes legitimate jihad. "For example, shooting an Israeli soldier will be viewed by moderate Muslims as falling under the title of jihad," Sheikh Hammoud says. "But blowing up a cafe in Tel Aviv may not be viewed by moderate Muslims as jihad. Attacks on military targets are legitimate, according to moderates, but anything against civilians is not."

Hammoud says occupation should be met with resistance. "So in Iraq, shooting a US soldier on Iraqi soil might be seen as jihad," he says, "but shooting an American worker, businessman, or journalist - anything other than military - is not jihad. For the most part, I agree with that."

Not all Islamic militants view Ramadan as a suitable time to launch attacks against their enemies. Abu Ali, a member of the Shiite Muslim Hizbullah who, in the 1980s, fought Israeli troops occupying south Lebanon, said that Ramadan for him and his comrades was always a month for reflection and spirituality. But each year, the Shiite branch of Islam also marks the month of Muharram, the 10th day of which is known as Ashura and is the most significant date in the Shiite Muslim calendar. On Ashura, Shiites commemorate the death of Imam Hussein at the battle of Karbala in AD 680. His martyrdom is regarded by Shiites as a supreme example of self- sacrifice, one to be emulated.

"Ashura was a time when we felt emboldened to step up our attacks against the Israelis," Abu Ali says. "But Ramadan had a special flavor for us. We were young and innocent and used to cry when we heard the Koran recited in the mosques. We concentrated more on spirituality during Ramadan than attacks against the Israelis. We were mobilizing our souls."

Analysts expect the attacks in Iraq to continue during Ramadan. The final 10 days of Ramadan are considered the holiest period, when Muslims are expected to increase their piety.

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