Seeds of nonviolent resistance sown in Iraq

A dozen friends have formed a political group to protest the US occupation.

In one of Baghdad's fiercest hotbeds of anti-American violence, something different is happening: Two weeks ago, young men and old walked down the street holding up banners protesting US military incursions. They used their mouths, not their guns.

Adhamiyeh, historically a Sunni Muslim quarter loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, is routinely visited by US soldiers who clash with the muqawma - local fighters resisting the occupation.

Normally it is the sound of semiautomatic machine-gun fire that fills the air of this district. Indeed, for the residents of Adhamiyeh, protest is completely novel, something that never happened while Mr. Hussein was in power. But in January a dozen residents - a group of childhood friends - decided that people needed a voice for their political views and formed a nonviolent political group. While some residents remain skeptical - some are unsure of the direction it will take, others say that Americans will only listen to force - many hope this is the seed of a new movement.

"We want to be assured the resistance will respect democracy, rights of women, different religions. We don't want types like Al Qaeda ... and Saddam," says Wahdi Nadhmi, a political analyst and professor at Baghdad University. "If the patriotic elements start a civil struggle, it will be welcomed by most Iraqi people."

After Friday prayers, some 150 people walked down the steps of the Abu Hanifa Mosque and joined in a demonstration. They decried the entry of US soldiers and search dogs into the mosque a few days earlier.

Two tanks loomed in the distance. Curious onlookers surrounded the mostly male group, who yelled, "God is great and America is our enemy." They neared the tanks, which did an about-face and drove away.

"They ran away, they were scared of us," said a young man excitedly, holding a banner's edge.

The group made its way back to the mosque and promptly burned an American flag before Arab satellite TV cameras.

It's a scene that has only been repeated once before, residents say, after the announcement that their beloved leader Saddam Hussein was captured. Then neighbors spontaneously took to the streets; when US forces showed up a clash ensued and four demonstrators were killed.

This time, the dozen friends hope nonviolent protest becomes the norm. They formed the Asshoura Council of Adhamiyeh to act "as a political front for Adhamiyeh," says Sheikh Mahmoud al-Adhamy, the council's founder.

Sheikh Mahmoud, as he is called, lives in the tough neighborhood of Safinneh, where foreigners are advised to stay away and where many of the clashes between muqawma and American forces take place.

"When the Americans are not coming in and starting a fight with the muqawma, then the muqawma goes and hits their base," says Seif Husham Sabar, a local resident.

Although Mahmoud does not condemn the violent route of the muqawma, he says that a parallel political route must be taken. "The resistance has a direct way," explains the sheikh. "It shows its disagreement by killing. We are a political front, and we publicize our ideas by fliers, banners, and demonstrations."

But some of Adhamiyeh's residents are cynical about the council and its efforts. "None of those people has the right to say they represent the people of Adhamiyeh," says Abu Tareq, a former high-ranking Army officer.

Mr. Tareq was walking home as the march proceeded toward the tanks. "This demonstration has no value, and it has no supporters," he says, noting the relatively small number of participants. "The Americans will not listen to this. It is just an outlet for the people's feelings."

Tareq says he does not oppose negotiations with the coalition, but he says that it must be based on equal levels of power. "The Americans forced their way in and must be forced out," he says. "America needs to be challenged because she respects those who challenge her. We don't have the planes, the tanks, or the heavy weapons, but we have the will to fight."

Some say the council is made up of the "elite" who "haven't done a thing while everyone else is fighting," says Mr. Sabar.

Husham Sabar Wahid, Sabar's father, suspects that the council is working with the Americans. But Sheikh Mahmoud insists that his group has no connection to American forces.

The demonstration was a trial run, he says. "We wanted to see if the media would actually cover the event and send out our message."

And in his desire to get the message across, Mahmoud is opening doors normally closed to foreigners: his own. Talking to an American reporter in his living room, he says: "We want to tell the Americans that [American soldiers] entering mosques and homes will increase the acts of the resistance against them."

Another visitor listens quietly but at last speaks up. "I oppose the Ashura because the Americans won't listen," says Abu Muayed. "The Americans told many lies about hidden weapons of mass destruction and plans for reconstruction. None of it came true. So, some of the Iraqis started resisting, and God help them."

But according to Dr. Nadhmi, not everyone is able to resist using violence. "People have jobs, families, health problems." he says. Consequently, he says, this is the beginning of a peaceful movement in the normally violent district. "Even [those who] wholeheartedly support the resistance will tell you that no one wants a confrontation with the mightiest force in the world," he says.

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