Fearful Iraqis avoid mosques as attacks rise

Fearful Iraqis avoid mosques as attacks rise
August 19th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Fearful Iraqis avoid mosques as attacks rise

Fearful Iraqis avoid mosques as attacks rise
Media: New York Times
Byline: Edward Wong
Date: 17 August 2006

Haider Ali communes with God through his CD player.

That is how he listens to the lectures of Shiite imams these days, for he
rarely sets foot in a mosque anymore.

Even on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, he prefers to pray at home, kneeling on
a rug in a room adorned with posters of green-robed Shiite martyrs slain
centuries ago.

"We'd go a lot to mosque before, but it's too dangerous now," Mr. Ali, 42,
said as he watched his 9-year-old son stack boxes in his downtown
convenience store. "Now, you feel a little empty inside."

Across central Iraq, more and more Iraqis associate the neighborhood mosque,
the cornerstone of life in the Muslim world, with the Kalashnikov rather
than the Koran.

Exploding sectarian violence has undermined the mosque's traditional role as
a gathering place, further unraveling the country's communal fabric. Mosque
attendance has plummeted, according to clerics and government officials, as
tens of thousands of Iraqis like Mr. Ali choose to pray at home out of
safety concerns. Gatherings at Friday Prayer are sometimes one-tenth the
size of what they once were, and parents no longer send their children to
mosques for spiritual lessons.

As a result, sales of CD's with religious lectures have boomed, while
satellite channels showing bombastic clerics are more popular than ever.

The decline in mosque attendance is a noticeable reversal of a trend that
began right after the American invasion of 2003, when religious freedom
flowered and worshipers, especially long-oppressed Shiites, flocked to

Now, however, mosques have become a frequent flash point in the widening
Sunni-versus-Shiite warfare.

Assaults on mosques have risen steadily since 2003, but soared after the
bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra last February, which unleashed
a torrent of sectarian bloodletting. There were at least 60 major attacks on
Shiite mosques and scores of minor ones in the first half of this year, a
figure equivalent to the total in 2005, according to statistics from the
Shiite Endowment, which administers Shiite mosques for the government.

Earlier this month, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt outside
the revered Shiite shrine of Ali in Najaf, killing at least 35 people and
wounding more than 120, including Iranian pilgrims.

About 160 Sunni mosques were damaged by rampaging Shiites in the immediate
aftermath of the Samarra bombing, a spokesman for the Sunni Endowment said.
Shiite militiamen also seized and kept at least 24 Sunni mosques.

Militias regard mosques as either places of refuge or tempting targets.
Entire congregations have been wiped out by car bombs. Gunmen abduct imams,
and sometimes shoot them outright. American and Iraqi forces often storm the
buildings hunting for guerrillas. Airstrikes obliterate minarets.

Sunni mosques have become rallying points for neighborhood militias, blaring
"God is great" from their loudspeakers to warn of the approach of Shiite
gunmen. Violence around mosques is so rampant that in June the government
imposed a curfew on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the peak prayer time.

Imams walk around with handguns stuffed into their robes, and many mosques
look more like prisons than prayer halls, fortified with concertina wire,
metal detectors and guards behind mounted machine guns.

"People wouldn't recognize their mosque today," said Sheik Akrim al-Dulaimi,
a Sunni imam in the strife-prone Baghdad neighborhood of Dawra.

Shiite policemen in a station right across from Sheik Dulaimi's mosque,
called Holy Mecca, opened fire on it the day of the Samarra bombing, he

Since then, he has added barbed wire and three feet to what was a five-foot
brick wall surrounding the mosque, which is sandwiched between a farm field
and a bustling boulevard. Like imams at all Sunni mosques in Dawra, he said,
he keeps five Kalashnikovs on hand.

The danger is ever present. In early June, someone spotted a homemade bomb
that had been planted outside the main gate before Friday prayers, Sheik
Dulaimi said. A volley of mortars landed near the mosque a month later,
killing a family in their home.

Sheik Dulaimi, a talkative man with a salt-and-pepper beard, said he now
preaches to about 200 worshipers at Friday prayers, down from 2,000 right
after the invasion. The mosque still holds five prayer services a day. But
an 8 p.m. citywide curfew and constant street violence keep virtually
everyone away during the dawn and evening prayers, which used to attract up
to 150 people.

"As imams, our main job in the mosque is to call for reform, for goodwill,
for worship," he said. "Now, it's tougher to do that because fewer and fewer
people are coming to the mosques."

While conservative Islam is on the rise across Iraq, and clerics wield much
more influence than they did under Saddam Hussein's secular government, the
dwindling attendance has troubled many imams.

"I'm really frustrated," said Sheik Abdul Wahab al-Adhami, whose Friday
gatherings at Abu Hanifa mosque have dropped to 1,000 worshipers from 3,000
after the invasion. "I'm depressed. I can't do my job properly."

The decline at Abu Hanifa is particularly telling. It is one of the largest
Sunni mosques in Iraq and a bastion of conservative Sunni power. Saddam
Hussein made his final public appearance there before the fall of Baghdad in
April 2003. The mosque houses the tomb of a revered Sunni imam and is one of
two in Iraq that has what is said to be a hair from the head of the prophet

But surging violence in the mosque's neighborhood of Adhamiya has forced the
head imam to flee to Syria. Sheik Adhami has taken over, but says he is too
scared to wear a traditional Sunni robe and turban when preaching on
Fridays. He has not slept at home in four months, he said, because the
police have warned him that gunmen would seek him out there and kill him.

Walking around the compound on a recent afternoon, the sheik pointed out
bullet holes in a metal loudspeaker and along a clock tower. The work of
Shiite militiamen, he said.

Trunks of palm trees formed barricades on the street outside, and guards
with Kalashnikovs stood by the main entrance. Each of five black banners
draped along the outer wall spelled out the name of a worshiper who had been
killed recently in a sectarian attack.

Sheik Adhami's diminishing control of his home turf became apparent minutes
later when a carload of neighborhood militiamen circled the mosque. The
mosque's head guard told a foreign visitor to leave immediately. The sheik
could not guarantee the visitor's safety.

"We're targeted by all the armed groups," Sheik Adhami said. "If it's not
Moktada al-Sadr threatening us, it's Al Qaeda or the Islamic Army of Iraq.
If you don't take a stand against the Americans or the Iraqi government, Al
Qaeda will target you."

Mr. Adhami blamed the powerful militia of Moktada al-Sadr, the
fundamentalist Shiite cleric, for most of the local violence, saying the
militiamen engaged in frequent drive-by shootings and mortar attacks.

But just across the Tigris River, in the Shiite enclave of Kadhimiya, imams
loyal to Mr. Sadr said they and their congregations were suffering as much
as anyone. They were particularly incensed with the Friday curfew.

One imam, Sheik Ayad al-Kabbi, fumed as he strode down a deserted market
street toward the golden-domed Kadhimiya Shrine one Friday afternoon to
deliver a sermon.

"Look at all of the closed shops," the white-turbaned sheik said, pointing
at the storefronts. "Maybe the new government wants to cancel midday
prayers. They want to prevent people from coming together. We don't agree
with this curfew."

Inside the shrine, a few hundred people had gathered in the courtyard,
barely filling a corner. "We used to have six or seven times this many
people," Sheik Kabbi said. "The whole floor was covered."

But some Shiite worshipers say the smaller the Sadr presence at mosques, the

Hashim Ibrahim Hassan, a politician from the northern Griot neighborhood,
said the Sadr militia had recently taken over a Shiite mosque, or
husseiniya, that his father built in 1954. The gunmen had kicked out the
imam and installed a cleric who had been living in Iran, he said. Women no
longer pray there on Fridays.

"Most of the time, I pray at home now," Mr. Hassan said. "Mosques are filled
with militias these days. I don't like the religious parties, and I don't
believe in them, thank God."

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