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Clerics Vie With U.S. For Power
Shiites Widen Role In Reshaping Iraq

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 7, 2003; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- At Baghdad's Mohsin Mosque, with white paint peeling from its roof and walls, hundreds of engineers gathered on cheap Persian rugs to plot a revolt against the leadership of the Iraqi Engineers Union. The leadership, they contended, was elected in a rigged vote and tainted by Baath Party members.

"We could go to the Americans," one engineer shouted.

"God forbid! God forbid!" said another.

"Should we use violence?" one asked. "No, we should not," the moderator answered.

"We need an alternative!" another shouted.

Three Shiite Muslim clerics sat in the front of the meeting Wednesday in pressed tunics, or dishdashas, and black robes, listening intently to the raucous debate. Given the chance to organize their meeting under the auspices of the Americans or the union leadership they despised, the engineers instead approached the clergy.

The clerics responded in earnest. They invited the disenchanted engineers to meet in the run-down mosque, closed for four years by the now-ousted government of President Saddam Hussein. They offered to announce the meeting during Friday prayers. And they expressed a willingness, in the words of one union organizer, "to provide spiritual guidance."

The clerics also offered to send a representative to meetings of the engineers. And as Iraq's reconstruction gets underway, the engineers granted the clergy's request not to build jails or liquor stores, or to appropriate property. The engineers agreed to submit to the clerics the names of candidates for union leadership, and with that, the clerics and engineers forged a nascent relationship.

In the latest contest over Iraq's uncertain future, the most activist and influential of Baghdad's Shiite clergy have declared their intention to begin shaping a civil society that is tentatively emerging in the capital.

In recent weeks, the clerics have reached out to universities and schools, offering assistance and pushing for dress they deem moral. In an increasingly crowded field of newspapers, they have set up two of their own, with plans for more. Under preparation are television and radio stations. In their most aggressive campaign, they have begun courting professional unions.

The work marks a strategic shift from the days after the government's collapse on April 9, when the clergy raced to fill a chaotic void by delivering sometimes heavy-handed security in the streets, confiscating stolen goods and delivering food and money to Baghdad's poor. After three decades of repression, they contend they now have the opportunity to fill both a cultural and a political role, taking a page from the success of Islamic movements in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and across the Muslim world.

"We want to see if America is sincere about democracy," said Sheik Abdel-Rahman Shuweili, a 35-year-old cleric who was jailed for more than three years by Hussein's government. "We've instructed our people to take advantage of democracy."

Shuweili, a slight man with a prematurely gray beard, is a leader in a faction of the Shiite clergy that believes religious leaders should forgo a centuries-old tradition of refraining from political life, and instead work actively to bring about a more devout society. Headquartered in the Hikma Mosque, a tan-brick building crowded by a watermelon stand and a shack selling blocks of ice, the dozens of clerics aligned with him have provided the backbone of the clergy's resurgence in Baghdad's postwar landscape.

Most of these clerics share a record of time in prison. Nearly all are in their twenties and thirties. Many trace their start as disciples of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, an activist cleric from one of Iraq's most prominent religious families who was assassinated with two of his sons in the southern city of Najaf in 1999. Since his death, his 30-year-old son, junior cleric Moqtada Sadr, has emerged as their leader.

After the war, the clerics were among the first to step forward. Their appearance chilled many in Baghdad, who saw the danger of a less tolerant society in their activism. But they won praise from others for their charity. In lawless streets filled with gunfire, they sent guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles to enforce order. Hundreds of poor came to their mosque for flour or stipends; the mosque claimed to have handed out more than $800 a day.

One cleric organized a team to drive two tankers to clear out water mains overflowing with sewage. Another drove an ambulance through the city's deserted streets at night, blaring appeals on its loudspeaker for municipal workers to return to work.

The clerics have worked closely with a layman, Ali Feisal Hamad, 38. He was instrumental in organizing the committees that dealt with needs from security at hospitals to restoring electricity. Since then, he and the others have retooled the committees -- 12 in all, each led by a cleric -- to focus on civil society. Their tasks range from running religious schools to setting up what they envision as a media conglomerate. An undercurrent is the belief that they are competing with the Americans to determine the shape of what follows Hussein's government.

"We were ruled by steel and fire for 35 years," Hamad said as he smoked a cigarette at the mosque. "The most difficult thing will be to rebuild the Iraqi personality on a proper basis. That is the most difficult task."

Sheik Hassan Zarqani sits at the center of the growing Shiite media conglomerate. A graduate of Baghdad University's journalism school and a former writer at the state-run al-Qadisiya newspaper, he is the editor of the Seminary, a newspaper long on articles about religion, and he just began publishing a second weekly, Baqia. In coming weeks, Zarqani's office will launch another weekly, the Voice of Friday, and then resume publishing Hoda, a monthly magazine shut down under Hussein's government.

Like any editor, Zarqani looks harried as he sits at his cluttered desk, a few of the 5,000 colorful copies of the Seminary stacked in front of him.

"We're so tired. Only God knows how tired we are," he said. "When I get home, I sleep like a corpse."

In conversations, Zarqani and other clerics express fear about the satellite dishes that have flooded Baghdad since the government's fall; some of the channels are too racy for their tastes. The clerics lambaste popular newspapers for running pictures of scantily clad women. And some, in private, worry that the papers are playing into what they see as a U.S. agenda to spread secularism and a culture they consider decadent.

"Right now, I think there is an informational battle going on," said Sheik Hassan Ghraibawi, a cleric who is overseeing efforts to set up a radio and television station. "America is a clever enemy, and I respect a clever enemy."

Outside his office is a slogan, painted in green, that reads, "If the seminary says do something, do it. If the seminary says don't do something, don't do it." He said the clerics were weeks away from starting radio broadcasts and months from running a television station. He has already sought to recruit more than 300 veterans of the Radio and Television Union.

As part of a contract Ghraibawi's office signed with the union, the clerics got the right to supervise content. They plan to organize a demonstration by union members today to protest the U.S. decision last month to disband the Information Ministry, a move that put most of the union's 1,300 members out of work. At Friday prayers, the clergy called on followers to participate in the protest.

In other meetings, Shuweili and other clerics have insisted on supervising elections for the doctors, engineers and teachers unions to ensure the integrity of the voting and keep Baath Party members out -- inroads a senior U.S. official described as a matter of concern.

"We've moved to another stage," Shuweili said. "We're focusing on awareness about the future of Iraq."

Two weeks ago, Shuweili paid a visit to Taher Barkaa, the president of Mustansariya University, one of Baghdad's three institutes of higher education. With its windows still broken and some of its carpet torn off by looters, the university needed furniture, and Shuweili offered to bring chairs, tables, air conditioners, fans and photocopiers. They arrived the next day.

He said the clergy could deliver armed guards -- an offer rejected by Barkaa. And in the two-hour meeting, he and the other clerics delivered a sermon on the proper behavior of students -- the veil, modest dress and no undue mixing of the sexes.

"We gave them advice," said Shuweili, who said he plans as many as 30 meetings in the coming weeks with other university presidents, department deans and headmasters. "It's good whoever listens to us. Whoever doesn't is free not to."

Barkaa said he listened but did not agree. "We refuse to impose the opinion of the clergy on others," he said.

Sitting in his office, its concrete floors bare, Barkaa said he has fielded demands from students to impose the veil and even close the university for a day to protest the arrest of a cleric this week. He called the meeting with Shuweili polite, even though he was irritated when the cleric arrived. But he said he fears the clergy is too ambitious in a society that still has pretenses of secularism.

"I hope the seminary will stay within the borders of religion and play no role in politics," Barkaa said. "Politics have no principle. Politics are the art of possibility. That's my personal opinion. Maybe it's not the opinion of the seminary."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company