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It's hard to find an Iraqi who supports bin Laden

BAGHDAD, Iraq—If President Bush wants to expand his war on terrorism to a country that has a history of ties to Islamic terrorist groups and is a hotbed of radical anti-Americanism, Iraq is an unlikely target.

In the streets of Baghdad, or in the deeply religious city of Karbala, 75 miles southwest of the capital, it is hard to find an Iraqi who expresses admiration for Osama bin Laden or the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"We do not agree with and cannot accept the death of those victims," said Abdul Sahib Naser Nasrulla, the custodian of Karbala's shrine to Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed.

Nasrulla, whose cigarette-smoking habit is at odds with the tenets of the strictest versions of Islam, adds, "We have many differences with Osama bin Laden."

Modern Iraq has always been a deeply secular country. Its regime was installed in the wave of Arab nationalism that swept the Middle East in the ཮s and ླྀs. It is, in fact, the very type of Arab government that extremists have targeted over the last two decades in their drive to set up "pure" Islamic nations.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and religious radicals such as bin Laden share a hatred of the United States, but little else.

As it prepares for a possible invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has claimed it has evidence of ties between Saddam and bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. Administration officials said they had reports of senior al-Qaida operatives in Baghdad and requests the group has made of Iraq for chemical weapons training.

Al-Qaida terrorists could become "an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred," President Bush said last week.

The charges are impossible to prove or disprove in Iraq, where journalists' activities are closely monitored and citizens are discouraged from having unmonitored conversations with foreigners. But they would be a sharp departure from Saddam's past behavior and Iraq's moderate religious traditions.

"Iraq and al-Qaida are not obvious allies. In fact, they are natural enemies," according to Daniel Benjamin, a former White House counterterrorism expert.

A 1998 White House review of all available intelligence "found no evidence of a noteworthy relationship" between the two, Benjamin, co-author of a new book on terrorism, wrote in an opinion article published Monday in the New York Times.

Iraqi society and education are not bound by the rigid Islamic doctrines found in such U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia. In Baghdad, women work in government offices and sometimes go without head coverings.

The Iraqi Constitution describes Islam as the state religion, but not the only religion. Five percent of the country is Christian. Shiite Muslims make up a majority of roughly 60 percent, and the remaining 35 percent are Sunni Muslims, who hold most political power.

"We don't have fundamentalists or extremists as we have in Taliban," said Mohammed M. al Saeed, president of the Saddam University for Islamic Studies in Baghdad.

The university's 1,500 students, all male and half from other Islamic countries, learn computer science and foreign languages (including English), along with more traditional subjects such as the Koran and Islamic law.

"Our method is to modernize the religion," al Saeed said. "We don't want religion to be just a study of heritage."

An Iraqi government official sheepishly said that when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened, many Iraqis' first reaction was satisfaction. Americans, they felt, finally understood something of the pain Iraqis have suffered through a dozen years of economic sanctions and periodic U.S.-led bombardments.

But those emotions appear to have passed for the most part. Despite the long estrangement between the two countries, many Iraqis express admiration for the United States, coupled with bitter disappointment.

"We had high ideals of America. . . . This big idea of America is completely changed," said Amal al Khedaily, an artist who occasionally hosts groups of foreigners—with the regime's approval—in her elegant Baghdad home on the banks of the Tigris River.

Sa'ad al Hasani, an assistant professor of English at Baghdad University who was at al Khedaily's home one evening, said that when 50 slots to study English at night opened up recently, 600 students applied.

Saddam traditionally has kept Islamists on a tight leash, viewing them as a threat to his regime.

But after Iraq's loss in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the imposition of international sanctions, the dictator positioned himself as a champion of Islam.

He began a "Faith Campaign" that involved banning alcohol from restaurants, a crash mosque-building program and the endowment of institutions such as the Saddam University for Islamic Studies, where government funds pay for students' tuition, books and stipends.

On a huge tract on Baghdad's outskirts, Saddam is building what will be the world's largest mosque. A dozen cranes hover over the partially built structure, while at least that many cement-mixing plants stand near by.

Some say U.S. policy is helping to create the very conditions Bush says he wants to eradicate.

"One cannot deny there is a wave of Islamic extremism, fundamentalism," said retired Iraqi diplomat Wissam al Lahawie. "There is more extremism in Iraq than I have seen (in) 20, 30 years. . . . And it scares me."

Indeed, rare Iraqi praise for bin Laden comes from a youth, 18-year-old Nabil Husham, who has come with his father to al Zahawi Coffee Shop on central Rasheed Street, where men are playing dominoes and smoking tobacco from water pipes.

"I consider those people who bombed the skyscrapers as heroes," he said. "Because I think this is a reaction to what America has done to their countries."


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20020927 USIRAQ sig, 20020926 Iraq history and 20020925 Ethnic map Iraq.