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Mosque Becomes Symbol for Sunnis in Iraq

July 12, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ The faithful stood and prayed in neat rows like a ``fortified wall″ _ the way Islam says God likes to see his worshippers.

At Baghdad’s mosque of the al-Imam al-A’azam _ Sunnis’ traditional seat of spiritual guidance in Iraq _ worshippers ponder a political pecking order turned upside down by the U.S.-led occupation.

The mosque, in a poor, proud neighborhood of the capital, has become a symbol of Sunni solidarity, as well as resistance to the rise of Shiite power and to the country’s new American masters.

Unity has taken on a much higher value these days for Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, a minority that has always ruled Iraq. Today, Sunnis are worried that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein may also herald the end of their domination and the rise of the nation’s Shiite Muslim majority.

In the mosque, a towering structure with a vast plaza, a blend of religious piety and patriotism underpin popular sentiment.

``What do I think of America’s occupation? Let us just say that tyranny has gone and infidels replaced it,″ said Mohammed Abu-Sojoud, a longtime resident of the al-Azamiyah neighborhood where the mosque is located. ``To me, the future of Iraq now looks horrible, even terrifying.″

Much of life in al-Azamiyah centers on the mosque of al-Imam al-A’azam _ in English, ``the greatest saint.″ It’s home to the tomb of the 9th century theologian Abi Haneifa al-Noaman, whose doctrine is observed today by nearly half of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Muslims. The tomb is visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year.

But such historical and religious associations have lately taken a back seat to politics.

As Baghdad fell to American forces in April, Saddam reportedly made his last public appearance in al-Azamiyah, just outside the mosque. The next day, U.S. troops fought a fierce, seven-hour battle against dozens of Arab volunteers and Iraqi militiamen who made their last stand in the neighborhood.

Blackened walls and bullet holes in buildings along the square opposite the mosque testify to the battle’s intensity. Those killed fighting the Americans are buried in the ``Martyrs’ Cemetery″ inside the mosque complex.

Hours after the April 10 battle ended, residents say a coalition aircraft fired at the mosque’s clock tower, seriously damaging the 70-year-old monument and deepening resentment toward the Americans.

Angry residents turned down an American offer to pay for the clock’s repair. Since the incident, there have been numerous guerrilla-style attacks against U.S. troops in the area, which the military still considers a flashpoint of anti-American resistance.

``The feelings of people cannot be placed under control,″ said Moayed al-A’azam, the mosque’s imam. Recalling America’s own war of independence, he pointedly said: ``Resisting foreign occupation is a given. Even animals reject the joining of their herds by outsiders.″

Others in al-Azamiyah are much less cautious, speaking of their duty to wage jihad, or holy war, against the Americans. The graffiti is just as outspoken.

``The Fedayeen are coming,″ declares one scrawl, referring to the feared pro-Saddam militia.

Al-Azamiyah’s emergence as a bastion of resistance has earned the neighborhood a reputation as a stronghold of hard-core Saddam loyalists. But many in the area vehemently reject that image.

Residents also insist that Saddam, although a Sunni himself, never showed any preference for other Sunnis.

``He never cared about al-Azamiyah,″ said Mohammed Yehia, an Islamic studies student in his final year at college. ``To him, loyalty, not being Sunni, is what mattered most.″

Sunni Arabs, who make up 15 to 20 percent of Iraq’s population, have long been privileged, first enjoying Ottoman patronage during centuries of rule by the Sunni Turks and later being favored by British colonizers. After Iraq’s British-backed monarchy was toppled in 1958, they kept a firm grip on power.

Like fellow Sunnis elsewhere in Iraq, al-Azamiyah’s residents are reluctant to dwell on the sudden rise of Shiite power. They point out to visitors that Shiite and Sunnis are Muslims who worship the same God.

Some say that focusing on Iraqis’ division is part of the U.S.-led occupation’s strategy.

But such assertions are often made to conceal a genuine concern among Sunnis over the rising fortunes of Shiites, who say they make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s 24 million people _ a figure that Sunnis contest.

Islamic author Alaa el-din al-Mudaris, a native of al-Azamiyah, says Iraq’s Sunnis have traditionally risen above sectarianism and thought more in terms of Iraqi nationalism and a strong sense of belonging to the wider Arab world.

``But we have been weakened since Saddam’s ouster,″ he said.

Shiite assertions that they are the majority in Iraq rile some Sunnis, but the U.S.-led government and many others appear to believe the time has come to redress Iraq’s traditional political imbalance. Shiites are expected to hold a commanding majority on a political council U.S. authorities will set up, possibly by this weekend, as a forerunner to a new Iraqi government.

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