KUFAH, Iraq—Iraqi mothers raise their children with an ancient superstition against handling the white drapes that Muslims wear to the grave. These days, however, the burial shrouds are slung across shoulders and waved high in the air by thousands of Shiite men as a chilling symbol of their willingness to die rather than succumb to the U.S.-led occupation of their homeland.
Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, who suffered for decades under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim-dominated regime, initially expressed gratitude to the American military for toppling the dictator and restoring their right to worship. In turn, they were awarded most of the seats on the 25-member interim governing body that U.S. administrators assembled last month.
But recent U.S. raids on religious centers, the reported arrests of Shiite scholars, the stationing of troops near shrines and other perceived cultural missteps have turned America's most powerful Iraqi ally into the greatest potential threat to the U.S. effort to rebuild the country and reshape the Middle East.
"We are now carrying burial shrouds always to remind us of death," said Sheik Raysan al Assadi, the keeper of the oldest mosque in the Shiite holy city of Kufah, south of Baghdad. "We must be ready to sacrifice our lives if Americans attack our religion or traditions."
The most worrisome scenario for America is that Shiite resentment, especially if it's armed and financed by neighboring Iran, could merge with Iraqi nationalism and with secular anger at the failure to restore order and basic services into an Iraqi version of the 1979 revolution that toppled the shah of Iran, who had been a longtime U.S. ally.
A second danger is that rising Shiite anger could fracture Iraq, a nation that in the past has been unified only by force, into a Shiite south, a Sunni Muslim center and a Kurdish north. That would encourage Iran, Iraq's Arab neighbors and Turkey to intervene to protect their interests.
Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, has acknowledged that religious extremists are emerging suspects in attacks that have killed dozens of American service members since President Bush declared major combat over May 1.
The most worrisome figure for American officials is Moqtada al Sadr, a fiery young Shiite cleric whose father was a venerated ayatollah who was murdered by Saddam's regime in 1998.
Sadr, said to be his 20s, seeks to make Iraq a Shiite theocracy like Iran, and he called recently for forming a religious army to protect Iraqis from what he described as brutal American forces. Sadr's speeches regularly draw thousands, but Iraqis don't agree on whether his followers truly believe in him or show up out of respect for his father.
"Moqtada al Sadr does not represent most Shiites," said Ahmed Sabah, 22, who sells scarves around the corner from Sadr's headquarters in the southern holy city of Najaf. "He's too young to lead us. He doesn't yet have the wisdom of a leader."
A spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called Sadr a rabble-rouser angling for political gain. The spokesman said Sadr was walking a thin line between freedom of speech and incitement to violence, a charge invoked by U.S. officials who shut down an anti-American newspaper in Baghdad last month.
"As long as he does not create an armed militia, he's welcome to collect support around him," the spokesman said.
All signs indicate that Sadr plans to form a full-fledged Shiite army, though some of his assistants admitted they're having difficulty gathering weapons and signing up volunteers. So far, mosque records show, about 10,000 men have registered for service in the "Mehdi" army, named after a Shiite imam who vanished hundreds of years ago and is expected to return to slay infidels.
American Lt. Col. Chris Conlin, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, which controls Najaf, said his Marines had enjoyed good cooperation with local leaders from the moment they arrived three months ago. Unlike many other Iraqi cities, Najaf has electric power 24 hours a day, and a $48 million project is under way to overhaul the power plant. Conlin said that even Sadr's group was friendly until U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer appointed an interim Governing Council that didn't include Sadr.
"I think what really happened is that Sadr is upset because he's not on the Governing Council," Conlin said. "And in an act of desperation, he went to the pulpit and preached this idea of creating an Islamic army for jihad."
Cloaked in a white burial shroud, Sadr appeared before about 7,000 people in Kufah on Aug. 1 and delivered a blistering sermon in which he urged men to join his army instead of the new Iraqi military overseen by American troops. He joined in chants of "No to America" but stopped short of urging attacks on the U.S. military.
"When people joined the Iraqi army established by the United States, they wronged themselves and they wronged Muslims," Sadr told the cheering crowd. "They joined for money, but material things are not more important than ethics and morals. I pray that they will leave this army and follow God's order."
Sadr may be the loudest voice calling for Shiite resistance, but the two most respected Shiite clerics also are expressing growing hostility toward the American presence.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who occupies the highest Shiite post in the world, advocates a strict separation of religion and politics. He refused an invitation to meet with Bremer in a move that made clear his position on U.S. forces in Iraq.
The other key cleric, Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, has advocated a secular government through his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and has a brother on the Governing Council. Many Iraqi and American officials are concerned about Hakim's ties to Iran, where he spent the past 20 years in exile.
U.S. officials accused Hakim's group of creating false identification for Iraqis streaming in from Iran, and conducted three raids on SCIRI offices. Ghaleb Zanji, the editor of the group's Al Adala daily newspaper, said the only weapons that American troops found in the raids were two rifles that were properly licensed to employees. Zanji said the troops seized computers, notebooks and photos, hampering publication of the newspaper.
U.S. officials wouldn't comment on the raids or the four people who reportedly were detained during one of the operations.
"We don't know how to act with them; we don't know what they're thinking," Zanji said. "We know for a fact we're on the Governing Council, we know freedom of the press is guaranteed in America, but we didn't know the Americans have two standards. It's freedom for the United States and injustice here. They're unpredictable in their behavior, so they have lost the support of most Iraqi people."
The spokesman for U.S.-led forces disagreed that most Shiites harbor anti-American feelings. He said they were still basking in the ability to practice their religion openly, which Saddam brutally oppressed. Bremer and top U.S. military officers meet regularly with religious leaders and have begun multimillion-dollar reconstruction projects in Shiite holy cities.
"We don't feel threatened at all by the Shiites. They are enjoying political and religious freedom, and working with us on the Governing Council," the spokesman said. "These people are coming out into the light and blinking at the brightness that's out there."
Images of revered imams now are mass-produced on key chains, posters, T-shirts and jewelry that used to depict Saddam. But alongside those wares, street vendors hawk grainy, bootlegged videos of Shiite demonstrations against U.S.-led forces, and worshipers sprinkling perfumed water pour into Iraq's shrines to pray for an Islamic government and for the Americans' swift departure.
Before Saddam's ouster, 32-year-old Emad Sadq hid rare Shiite texts from the dictator's security forces in his gold shop in Baghdad, which stayed open until midnight. Now Sadq tucks his jewels away at dusk for fear of thieves but leaves religious writings in a pile near his cash register.
Sadq gathers with other Shiite shopkeepers in the evenings to sip tea and debate whether they were safer under Saddam. He and his friends said they were happy to be rid of the leader but that they resented the Americans, whose presence had brought satellite dishes, revealing clothing and other ostensible threats to their religion. Like most Shiites, Sadq said, he'll wait for guidance from al Hauza, a religious authority made up of the most esteemed Shiite scholars, before deciding whether to join resistance efforts.
"The Americans have technology, yes, but they lack morals," Sadq said. "We are not against Western civilization and development, but we should take the good things only. We don't want the bad, immoral parts of their culture. The biggest danger now is the killing of the soul, not the body."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Drew Brown in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+SHIITES