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Sunnis wait for their moment
By Nir Rosen

BAGHDAD - The bombing of the United Nations compound last week means that now the targets in Iraq are not merely occupying forces, but the West and the international system as a whole. The use of an explosive-laden truck and a suicidal driver resemble the tactics of al-Qaeda, Hamas and even the Lebanese Hizbollah in the 1980s.

In a speech last Friday, President George W Bush warned of "al-Qaeda-type fighters" infiltrating Iraq. It is unlikely that Shi'ites would have been involved in the attack since their community has generally refrained from attacking US and British soldiers, while their leaders have criticized the style more than the substance of the occupation. Shi'ites, the primary victims under Saddam Hussein, are also still inclined to feel grateful for the liberation. The Shi'ite leadership was vehement and united in its condemnation of the UN bombing. Shi'ites are most likely to benefit from the new social order developing in Iraq, and thus least likely to obstruct it.

Sunni radicalism, however, is less likely to distinguish between targets. Iraqi Sunnis were typically privileged under Saddam although in the minority and their leaders are far more hostile to the foreign presence. Al-Qaeda bears grudges against the UN going back to Afghanistan and the Ansar al-Islam, a radical Sunni group that was based in Kurdistan, had clear links with al-Qaeda. Ansar is said to have moved south towards Baghdad. Until now, however, even Sunni clerics like Imam Mahdi al-Jumeili of the small Hudheifa mosque of Baghdad's Shurti neighborhood have refrained from advocating violence.

"We are sure they came here to steal the country and protect Israel," Jumeili says of the Americans. "They plan to take over the whole world. Everyone wants to control Iraq and take a piece of our wealth, Japan, Europe, Russia." Jumeili is conspiratorial in his view of international affairs. "Judaism and Masonism are at war with Islam and they share the same goals with America in the world. What is happening tells us the truth about their intentions. The American army consists of mercenaries and bastards. The control of Iraq is an evil thing and those who help control it are evil. The US helped Saddam 300 times. In the war with Iran, the US helped Saddam because it needed him. Now the US wants to play a role in the area by itself so it got rid of Saddam."

Jumeili explains that "many simple people ask us why don't we wage a jihad, but we refuse to grant a jihad so that there will be no more bloodshed. All the people are mad and want to fight the US and we tell them the US promised to leave Iraq and we have to wait, but we think eventually people will take things into their own hands."

This barely veiled threat is heard in Sunni mosques throughout Iraq. Sheikh Kheiri, leader of Tikrit's main mosque, still called the Saddam Mosque, "I told you many times not to attack the Americans now," he lectured his listeners. Instead, he exhorted his flock, "Wait and prepare yourselves. Your enemy is very strong and whatever you do you cannot defeat him. When you organize yourself secretly, and plan secretly and collect weapons secretly, then you will succeed in whatever you do. Don't let your enemy know what you are doing. Your government is gone, your supporters are gone, everything is gone right now."

Sheikh Kheiri admonished his listeners, who numbered about 500, for supporting the Ba'ath Party of Saddam and for straying from Islam. Before the war, criticism of the secular and corrupt Ba'ath Party would have led to death, but now he blamed their support of the Ba'athists for the American presence. Kheiri reminded his listeners that "Mohammed worked secretly for three years before he began his campaign for Islam". He urged them to organize and recruit people, warning against small random attacks because "you are between the lion's teeth and if you do anything he will kill you and your family. Don't do anything until we tell you."

Tikrit is the center of the area in Iraq known as the "Sunni Triangle", which was referred to by the head of the US Central Command, General John Abizaid, recently. "The terrorist threat that is emerging and is certainly becoming a problem for us is clearly being fueled by extremists within a fairly distinct geographical area - Tikrit, Ar Ramadi, Baghdad."

In Samara, a city located between Tikrit and Baghdad, Mullah Hatim Samarai, leader of the Great Mosque, told his supporters, "I hope God will help us see them leave our country," Mullah Hatim spoke to a congregation of 1,000 people in his mosque, where he wields tremendous influence as one of the leading clerics of northern Iraq. But he, too, urged his listeners not to take matters into their own hands.

In the nearby al-Jubeiria neighborhood of Samara at the mosque of Ahmad bin Hamad, the sermon is usually angrier. This mosque is reputed to be Wahhabi, the same strict brand of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia and which counts Osama bin Laden among its adherents. The mosque is known for its sermons that demand of Muslims not to speak with Americans, not to help them and to begin fighting them. Graffiti on the mosque walls supports Ansar al-Islam. Until recently, there was also a weapons market nearby.

At the Alburahman mosque of Samara, Sheikh Ahmad al-Abasi has taken a comparatively moderate approach, advising his listeners to work with the Americans, and help them, but that "if after a year they do nothing for the people here, we will tell them to go home". Presumably he meant violently.

The speech resembled the recent sermon in Baghdad of Iraq's most prominent Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Kubaisi, the Sunni fundamentalist leader of the Iraqi National Movement, who spoke in Baghdad condemning the attacks against American soldiers because they were premature and should not begin until it is seen whether or not the Americans act on their promise to leave as soon as possible.

Kubaisi admitted that Sunnis were pushed aside because the US viewed them as hostile and that the Shi'ites were the temporary victors. In June, Kubaisi spoke in the Great Mosque of Samara. He prohibited attacks against the Americans. "We waited 35 years under Saddam and we should give the Americans a year before we fight them and tell them to leave," he said.

Kubaisi, who was exiled in 1998, returned to Iraq after the war and made his debut sermon at the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad, Iraq's most important Sunni mosque. The minaret, or tower, of the mosque still bore the scars of an American missile that went through it during the war. Hundreds of people stood and knelt barefoot outside the packed mosque. On top of its walls stood young men holding banners proclaiming "One Iraq One People", "We Reject Foreign Control", "Sunnis are Shi'ites and Shi'ites are Sunnis, We are all One", "All the Believers are Brothers", and similar proclamations of national unity.

The sermon that followed the prayer was unique for its nationalism. Baghdad had been occupied by the Mongols, the sheikh said, referring to the sacking of the capital of the Muslim world in 1258. Now new Mongols were occupying Baghdad and they were creating divisions between Sunnis and Shi'ites. The Shi'ites and Sunnis were one, however, and they should remain united and reject foreign control. They had all suffered together as one people under Saddam's rule. Saddam oppressed all Iraqis and then he abandoned them to suffer.

There were no Sunnis or Shi'ites, all Iraqis were Muslims and they had defended their country together from the Americans and British, as a united people. The sheikh also thanked the Shi'ite people of Basra for "defending their country against the foreign invaders". Kubaisi then formed a political party and limited his overt religious activity.

Sheikh Muayad, the imam and speaker of the Abu Hanifa mosque, was chosen by Kubaisi to lead it after the war. He, too, has strategically chosen to cooperate with the Shi'ite majority, although Shi'ites grumble that both he and Kubaisi were denouncing them as apostates until the war started and that their new-found brotherhood is merely tactical. In a demonstration called for by Baghdad's Shi'ite leadership, Muayad told the thousands of Shi'ites that "we are brothers and we won't be separated. Our enemies want to separate us but we won't be divided and we will be united".

In a recent interview, given in the dark because there was no electricity that night, Muayad complained about the American presence. "All good people of the world reject foreign occupation," he said, "whether they are Muslim or not. Americans rejected British imperialism, so why do they deny other people the right to do what they did? We as Muslims reject any foreign occupation because Muslims do not recognize slavery to anyone but God."

On the steps outside the Abu Hanifa mosque a book seller displays a thin book supporting bin Ladin and defending his actions entitled "Bin Ladin: Our Enemy is America".

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