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As Ramadan begins in Iraq, U.S. troops prepare for more violence

KARBALA, Iraq—Just as Islam's holiest month got under way, rockets tore into the Baghdad hotel where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying. It was a violent start to what residents and pilgrims in this holy city 50 miles south of the capital hope will be a renewal of Iraq's soul.

The attack highlights just how difficult Ramadan will be for the Americans as they try to rebuild this war-torn country. People here say the holy period will be one of the toughest tests for the Americans and Coalition forces as they try to prove to Iraqis that foreigners can govern as well as occupy.

American and Coalition have taken some steps to acknowledge the holy month and show their respect, such as opening a key bridge in Baghdad and lifting the curfew. The 1st Armored Division has even erected a sign in Baghdad congratulating residents on the first Ramadan without Saddam.

But some in this holy city predict violence will continue. Others say the fasting and prayer of Ramadan will bring stability, born of faith.

For Iranian homemaker Um Mustafa—the mother of Mustafa—the day is one of religious liberation. For the first time since she was 13, the 35-year-old from Tehran is able to worship here at the shrines of Al Abbas and Immam Hussein, two of the most holy mosques in the Shiite faith.

"We started crying," she said, modestly covering her mouth with the cloth of her Abaya, her eyes welling with emotion. "I can't describe my feelings. We kissed the doors."

For Lt. Vincent Thomas, a young MP from Rhode Island, the day likely won't be more stressful or taxing than any other in this difficult tour of duty. His unit, the 173rd Military Police Battalion, lost three men, including their lieutenant colonel, in a shootout with Shiite radicals just blocks away from the mosques only 10 days ago.

"It's just the stuff we abide by all the time," he said. "Keep up the operational tempo. Respect the Iraqi people."

And for once-exiled Karbala poet Saad Mohammed Redha Ghazwini, who fled to Kuwait 35 years ago to write in opposition to Saddam, the arrival of Ramadan being mixed emotions.

"It is a pleasure to all Muslims, except the few troublemakers, that they have made Saddam go," he says, sipping tea at the Tal Al-Zainabiya Hotel. "We are happy, but we see the mistakes (the coalition) is making. We see the lack of planning. If there are problems, it will be because of them."

More than 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide celebrate Ramadan, which began with the sighting of the new moon this weekend. Of the 25 million Iraqis, the vast majority is Muslim, with Shiites making up 60 percent of the population.

Muslims believe that during Ramadan, heaven's gates are wide open and hell is locked shut. This belief has some worried about increased attacks by those who believe it is good for a Muslim to die during Ramadan.

The holy month could provide a religious excuse for radicals to martyr themselves, experts say. Americans also recall with dread the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War, when religious fervor was channeled into military strategy.

"The Islamists or the extremists are going to use the Ramadan month as a tool for their political interests," said Dr. Sadoun al-Dulame, executive director for the independent and privately funded Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies.

Tensions will run particularly high in the so-called "Sunni-Triangle" west and north of Baghdad. There, attacks on U.S. troops by small arms fire and roadside bombs occur daily.

The area is the last bastion of support for Saddam in Iraq, particularly around Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. And in Ramadi and Fallujah, clashes between guerillas and U.S. troops have left civilians dead, fueling revenge in the tightly knit tribal towns.

A higher profile by U.S. soldiers seeking to quell unrest during Ramadan could do more harm than good, experts say.

"I've always said it depends on the procedures and the policy of the occupation," said Dr. Nabeel al-Ani, a professor at Baghdad University's International Studies Center. "It could be worse, could be calm, because most people will be busy with their religious concerns. It depends on how the soldiers behave."

The military is attempting to ease tensions by gestures of goodwill, particularly in Baghdad.

The key July 14 Bridge was open Sunday, just hours before the rocket attack on the Al Rasheed Hotel, somewhat relieving the infuriating traffic jams that plague the capital city.

Also, the 11 p.m. curfew has been lifted and food baskets, which are distributed to needy Iraqis, will be increased.

Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division, which controls Baghdad, said he didn't believe the attack was connected to Ramadan. Instead, he said, it was intended to "discredit" the efforts of the Coalition to normalize Iraqi life, such as opening the bridge and lifting curfew.

"I don't think that those we are fighting are true believers," he said. "So they will use this time to plan and execute attacks. That should tell you something about them."

South of Baghdad, in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, the factional fighting between mainstream Shiites and young radicals from Baghdad is expected to subside during the holy week.

Two weeks ago, gunmen believed to be supporters of Muqtada Sadr, who lords over the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, attacked Karbala's holy shrines in attempt both to gain support among young, disenfranchised Shiites and to captured the millions of dollars in contributions pilgrims leave at the mosques each year.

The mosques mark the spots where the grandsons of Mohammed were slain 1,375 years ago in the struggle with rival Muslims for control of the faith after the prophet's death.

Sadr is also suspected of being behind the car bombing of the Ali Shrine last month that killed 78 people, including Mohammed Bakr al Hakeem, an important, moderate cleric.

Also in Karbala, bodyguards of a Sadr associate Mahmoud Hassani battled with U.S. military police when the U.S. troops and Iraqi police attempted to disarm them after curfew.

The battles left the city teetering on the edge of civil war, with Polish and American tanks filling key streets and foot patrols elbowing their way through crowded markets and alleyways.

Most of the radicals fled after the battles, and the remaining gunmen were rounded up in a raid by Iraqi Police and Civil Defense troops—backed by U.S. and Polish armor—on Tuesday.

Since then, the city of 1.5 million has been calm. The Coalition checkpoints and patrols have pulled back from the center of the city, and the Iraqi police are on the streets, directing traffic and answering the questions of puzzled pilgrims.

"Everything is quiet in this town now," said shopkeeper Abrahim Saheb, 27, who sells cigarettes, candy and cold drinks a half block from the Al Abbas mosque. "There is a lot of business and everyone is busy."

Karbala police Lt. Col. Sabih Abdulrahim predicts a calm Ramadan here.

"The things that happened a week ago are between the tribes, tribal things, not between the people of Karbala and the coalition," he said. "Some kind of sedition happened."

He said that Sadr's and Hassani's apparent power grab misfired, and they lost, rather than gained, support.

"The people in Karbala don't like the problems," Abdulrahim said. "The people of Karbala now hate those people, especially Hassani. Religious people should be better behaved, should not have guns and be killing people. I know my duty. Religious people should know their duty, talking about God and faith, not having guns."

The new challenge for the police here are the increasing number of Iranian and other foreign pilgrims pouring into the city through open borders.

"As soon as the war ended, the Iranian visitors started to appear," Abdulrahim said.

Under Saddam, only a trickle of Iranians, and no Kuwaitis, were allowed to enter the country to visit the shrines, and then under the close scrutiny of his intelligence agents.

Now, the pilgrim's can move more or less freely in and out of the country. Residents predict that soon the Iranians, Kuwaitis and other Shiites will begin arriving at the shrines in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions on holy days, as they did before Saddam.

"That is the magic of Karbala," said innkeeper Abd Al Redah Hayawi.

Pilgrim Um Mustafa, the Iranian housekeeper, said her family paid $8 a piece for the two-day trip from Tehran. She said she was nervous about traveling in Iraq, "but I am now at peace."

Fear has kept many of the faithful away, she said, but soon, if there is a peaceful Ramadan, the floodgates will open.

"When I return, people will visit us and congratulate us," she said. "And they too will come. They are all crying to come here and see."


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

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