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Iraqi Shiites grateful to U.S. for toppling Saddam, but eager to run their own affairs

NAJAF, Iraq—Nearly three months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the holy city of Najaf and Shiite Islamic practice _violently suppressed under his rule—are undergoing a renaissance.

New religious schools are opening. The city's holy shrine—which contains the tomb of Ali, the most revered Shiite figure—draws worshippers from Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere in droves. Shiite families who fled to Iran are coming back to Iraq. And preparing meals for the poor—a charitable practice virtually banned under Saddam's regime—is getting underway again.

A majority of Iraqis practice Shiite Islam, as do nearly all Iranians, but under Saddam, Sunni Muslims, a minority of the population, dominated the government.

Many Shiites express gratitude to the United States for getting rid of Saddam. Yet the feeling of gratitude is quickly giving way to impatience and anger as the U.S. civil administration in Iraq postpones the day when Iraqis can run their own affairs.

Indeed the calm of Najaf—130 miles sound of Baghdad—was shattered on Thursday when a U.S. soldier was shot and killed while investigating a car theft. The exact circumstances of the killing are unclear. Attacks on coalition troops in Iraq have mainly been in Sunni Muslim areas, although six British soldiers were killed by an angry Shiite mob in a southern Iraqi town on Tuesday

Saddam slaughtered thousands of Shiites after a 1991 uprising. The U.S. government encouraged the uprising, but then failed to support it. Families were gunned down in their fields and hundreds of Shiite men have been discovered in recent weeks in mass graves.

"During Saddam, for Shiites, we did not feel rest from the beginning of his rule," said Sahab Abu al Ammer, an undertaker at Najaf's enormous Wadi al Salam Cemetery, where Shiites from all over Iraq are sent to be buried. "He started his regime by cutting the throats of Shiites during the Iran-Iraq War. We were prevented from praying in our mosques."

Now, religious clerics, instantly recognizable by their white or black turbans and long robes, walk through the crowded streets with an air of authority. Other Iraqis move from their path. Nearly all of the women in Najaf keep their heads covered with scarves or wear ankle-length black "abayas." Westerners are allowed to visit the magnificent shrine—resplendent with big wooden doors and stupendous mosaic tile—if they wear the proper clothing, but they cannot enter the tomb itself.

In Khadamiya, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraqis say that they too can feel the difference.

"Before, if you would go to Najaf, Saddam's men would stop you on the road and tease you for being Shiite," said Mohammed Jabar, 25, the owner of a small music shop. Jabar sells CDs of songs that praise numerous Shiite imams—CD's that were forbidden under the former regime but are now enormously popular.

"They would stop you on the road and take your ID card, and it was very dangerous to go to Najaf. Now we can go anytime. It feels like being out of jail for the first time—there are no more chains."

Jabar says that he will forever be grateful to American soldiers for toppling Saddam's regime. But he is anxious for an Iraqi government to be established, along lines that ought to be welcomed by the U.S. authorities in Iraq.

"We don't want to be like Iran," said Jabar. "In Iran the imams control everything. Here, we will have a president. The imams should play a separate role. A secular man should run the government."

"It doesn't matter to me if the new president is Sunni or Shiite," said Sami Abud al Razak, a Shiite vendor in Khadamiya's market who has used the new freedom to grow a long beard. "The two branches of Islam are like brothers. The most important thing is that we have an Iraqi president."

In place of ubiquitous portraits of Saddam Hussein now are photos of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the community's senior religious figure. Large colorful posters of Sistani and other prominent clerics fill crowded souks and bazaars, and many families have taped them to the rear windows of their cars.

Yet, despite gratitude for their new religious freedom, Shiites—like Iraqis across the country—are increasingly angry that the American promise of liberation has turned into occupation, with electricity and running water in short supply as summer temperatures soar.

L. Paul Bremer, the top American administrator in Iraq, recently angered residents when he cancelled elections for selecting a governor for Najaf.

The current mayor of Najaf is Abdu al Munim, who many believe to be a high-ranking member of the Baath Party.

"We have had three demonstrations against this in Najaf, and he is still the mayor," said Sahab Abu al Ammer. "We want elections so that we can get him out."

Others are anxious not only for local elections, but for national ones as well.

"We are fed up," said Sayd Hasim al Sayd Rasak al Hakeem, an imam in Najaf. "We want a government now. Anyone will do but Bremer."

Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, has also condemned Bremer's decision to postpone local elections.

"We will not accept governments being imposed on us and having formulas and structures imposed on us, as was the case in the past," said al-Hakim in a recent sermon. "The age of tyranny and suppression has gone to hell and into the dustbin of history."

SCIRI is one of seven major political parties that are likely to have seats on a yet to be formed Political Council, which will be part of an interim Iraqi government that Bremer says he plans to form by mid-July.

Abu Aslam al Sadden, a SCIRI spokesman, denied rumors that SCIRI was arming men to fight coalition forces. SCIRI set up a military unit called the Badr Brigade in 1983, and Bremer has said that the brigade should disarm.

"Our aim was to get rid of Saddam. Now our aim is to rebuild Iraq," said al Sadden. "These people who are attacking soldiers and water and power supplies want to create chaos. We know that such attacks will only delay the formation of our own government. If we had a real Iraqi government, such attacks would end."

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

ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

USIRAQ-NAJAF.

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