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Mass prayer gatherings in Baghdad a sign of freedom for Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—This is what freedom looked like Friday in Baghdad:

Tens of thousands of people crammed the huge Shiite Muslim slum formerly known as Saddam City, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, praying in the open air, for the first time in many of their lives.

Guarded by thousands of militiamen toting AK-47 assault rifles, boys and men got down on their knees and said noon holy day prayers in the streets outside the slum's central mosque.

Such a scene was unimaginable just two weeks ago. Saddam Hussein's secret police banned large gatherings and planted spies in mosques to stifle religious opposition to his secular Baath Party. Security forces crushed an outdoor prayer service here in 1999, killing more 300 Shiites.

"It was the will of God!" exclaimed an elderly worshipper in a dusty robe, kissing his fingers to his forehead and waving a salute to the sky.

"Yes, yes for the martyrs who died," the worshippers chanted en masse, at a prayer leader's loudspeaker prompting. "Yes, yes for Muslim unity."

No U.S. soldier was in sight, and no credit was given to the American troops who had liberated Iraq from Saddam's iron grip.

A heavily armed, self-styled Islamic militia handled security, complete with paper badges pinned to their chest issued by Muslim clerics, another unthinkable act during Saddam's rule.

"I'm here to protect the prayers," said Samer Elias, 28, sporting sneakers, gray sweatpants and a white T-shirt beneath an ammunition vest filled with AK-47 clips. "We are volunteers, taking our orders from the mosque."

Clearly enjoying the role, he and several other gunmen built a makeshift checkpoint from scrap metal six blocks from the mosque. Then, methodically, Elias questioned motorists and checked car trunks, in a carbon copy of military checkpoint procedures across the Middle East, from Israeli soldiers and Lebanese militiamen to American Marines in downtown Baghdad.

The outpouring of tens of thousands for prayers and the presence of the militia served as reminders that the Shiites could present a major challenge to U.S. efforts to impose an interim governing authority in Iraq.

A band of Shiite sheiks who want no contact with the American forces arrived in Baghdad earlier this week from the Shiite spiritual center of Najaf to enlist volunteers for Islamic schools, security, health and other postwar relief projects and to declare themselves the selected leaders of Iraq.

"We are responsible for all the people in Iraq, including Sunni (Muslims), Shiites and Christians also," said Sheik Halim al Fatlawi, 30, who arrived from Najaf's Islamic Study Center on Tuesday. "We want liberty for Iraq. Not to replace the regime, but to offer security and services in Iraq."

For years, the slum was called Saddam City, for the president who never deigned to spend a share of his nation's oil wealth on improving conditions because Shiites are said to be more loyal to Islam than any government. Soon after Baghdad fell, Sunni opposition leaders announced that the slum would be called al Thouwra, or Revolution.

But clerics Friday were calling it Sadr City, for a Shiite spiritual leader who was assassinated, presumably by Saddam's forces.

While the militiamen imposed order, Muslim clerics in the classic black robes and white turbans of Najaf worked the crowd to impose Islamic discipline, hissing at Western women to hide their hair under scarves, and shushing Shiites who stopped to chat with journalists observing the remarkable moment.

All morning, volunteers bulldozed heaps of garbage from the rutted dirt street while worshipers toting prayer rugs gathered silently around the mosque to see what would happen. Then, suddenly, the Shiite militiamen fanned out in a six-block radius to stop traffic.

Some wore steel-blue uniforms stolen from government storehouses that repentant looters had turned over to their prayer leaders. Others wore sweatpants and running shoes, or traditional robes.

"Saddam is a donkey. I love you, Mohammed Bakr," shouted a militiaman from a block in the crowd where many Muslims waved once banned photos of Bakr, another Shiite spiritual leader said to be assassinated by Saddam's forces.

Friday's scene was eerily reminiscent of Beirut in 1983 in the months before the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks, when the Iranian-backed Hezbollah extremist group was organizing the Shiites as a proud, independent minority in the southern suburbs.

Of any people in Baghdad, the Shiites are most resilient in the current crisis of no water and electricity. Saddam's regime spent little of its oil wealth in the teeming slum, and the impoverished Shiites long ago learned how to manage without basic services.

Before the prayers, the area around the mosque was a bustle of activity, with open-air stalls filled with onions and eggplants and rusty cars chugging through the streets.

But then the militia fanned out, the traffic stopped, men and boys unfurled their prayer rugs on the dirt streets and, when the call went up, rose and fell in prayer as one, in perhaps the largest repudiation of Saddam's rule yet seen in this city.


(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PRAYER

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030411 USIRAQ SHIITES