BAGHDAD, Iraq—A Sunni Muslim cleric who operates out of an imposing mosque with minarets shaped like rifle barrels has become one of America's most formidable foes in Iraq.
In the year since he founded the ultraconservative Association of Islamic Scholars, Sheik Hareth al Dhari has emerged as the closest thing U.S. military officials have to a public face for the shadowy insurgency that controls most of Anbar province, including the flashpoint towns of Ramadi and Fallujah.
Al Dhari denies that he's in direct contact with the insurgents, who've killed at least 105 American troops in the past year. Yet foreign diplomats know him as the go-to guy to save hostages held by militants threatening to behead them.
On a recent Friday after prayers at al Dhari's Umm al Qura mosque, a man dressed in a South Asian tunic and trousers sidled up to al Dhari's lieutenant, Sheik Ahmed al Samuraie, and introduced himself as the charge d'affairs at the Pakistani embassy.
"One of our workers has been kidnapped and will be beheaded," the man told Samuraie. "It's been five days now. Please, please give us your assistance. Please, sheik. He didn't do anything and he's not involved with the government or the United States."
"I'm ready to help," Samuraie replied.
Five hours later, Arabic-language satellite channels reported the Pakistani hostage's release.
Al Dhari says the releases—his association has helped free more than 20 foreign hostages in the past four months—are nothing more than humanitarian gestures.
But they've left top foreign officials indebted to him—a reporter saw the Sudanese and Russian ambassadors kiss and hug al Dhari during recent visits to Umm al Qura mosque—and have raised suspicions among U.S. and Iraqi officials, who wonder about anyone who's able to change the minds of executioners with a phone call.
"They call us the Kidnappers' Association or the Criminals' Association," al Dhari said. "Because they're weak, they have tried to intimidate us by putting question marks on even our humanitarian efforts."
In a series of interviews with Knight Ridder in the past month, al Dhari said he's not the insurgent mastermind his critics portray. He said he doesn't finance insurgents or issue commands. He said he's never met with foreign guerrillas, although he unabashedly supports Iraqis who take up arms against U.S.-led forces. His newspaper publishes flowery obituaries of fallen insurgents from Anbar province.
"The heroes are the ones fighting," al Dhari said in his most recent interview. "I'm just an assistant."
The cleric became a hero in Fallujah, the heart of the Anbar insurgency, for running aid convoys and ushering refugees to safety as U.S. Marines pounded the city during a siege in April.
The siege was the springboard for al Dhari's newfound status as Sunni Islam's loudest voice in Iraq. He issued a fatwa, or religious edict, ordering followers to boycott American and British products and preached fiery sermons.
"Fire on every traitor, and everyone who pushed towards occupying this country," al Dhari said in April, condemning U.S.-appointed Iraqi leaders. "Woe to all of them ... because of what they are doing against their people."
Al Dhari's scholarly background and rebellious spirit make him a Sunni combination of his two best-known Shiite counterparts, the venerated Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani and the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His association is the umbrella group for more than 6,000 Sunni mosques, nearly 80 percent of that sect's religious institutions in Iraq.
The sheik's detractors say he must be stopped before he steers Iraq into an oppressive, Taliban-style regime. Supporters say he's the only viable political hope for Sunnis, whose fortunes were reversed when Saddam Hussein fell.
"He represents the Sunni opposition voice in Iraq and this opposition is supported by outsiders who have no business here," said Sheik Homam Hamoodi of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the dominant Shiite group.
So far, al Dhari has avoided arrests or raids. Some officials say he's too useful as a conduit to guerrilla groups; others say U.S. actions against him would only make him a martyr and provoke more attacks. Al Dhari said he's done nothing wrong.
"Now is not the right time to focus on certain people or organizations," said Sabah Kadhim, the spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry. "At the same time, we're monitoring (al Dhari's association) and trying to correct any wrongdoing. We want to help them because they represent a wide spectrum of Iraqi people."
Other members of the new government were unwilling to answer even a single question when asked for comment. None dared criticize him on the record.
"I'd love the chance to talk about him," said one nervous ministry official, "but I don't want to do this over the phone."
Al Dhari, 63, still lives in Khan Dhari, the village 25 miles west of Baghdad named for his forefathers, near the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
The village is known for producing rebellious tribesmen: One of al Dhari's forebears killed the despised British Col. Gerard Leachman in 1920, triggering the famous revolution against the British occupation of Iraq.
Al Dhari's associates note, only half jokingly, that al Dhari missed his chance to repeat family history when L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, safely left the country last month after turning over power to the new government.
Colleagues who've known al Dhari for decades said his transformation in the past year from passive Islamic studies professor to militant cleric came as a surprise.
Al Dhari left Iraq in the 1960s to pursue a doctorate at Egypt's prestigious al Azhar Islamic University and then taught in Iraq, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. He was teaching abroad during the war and returned after Saddam's ouster.
Mohsin Abdul Hameed, an original member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council and head of the Sunni-based Iraqi Islamic Party, taught with al Dhari at Baghdad University under Saddam's regime. Hameed recalled that the sheik refused to appear on television praising Saddam even though it would've helped his career.
But his conservative beliefs have made him anathema to many.
When more than 5,000 Anbar tribesmen gathered in June to discuss the Sunni agenda, some moderate Sunnis were infuriated to find out al Dhari was the keynote speaker. Privately, they met with tribal leaders and warned them that al Dhari was hijacking the Sunni political voice, spreading a medieval Islam and luring their young men to militancy, according to two participants.
They also expressed concern about his warm reception from rulers in other Arab countries, particularly Egypt and the Gulf states. A U.S. official in Washington also said al Dhari was "reaching out" and had been spotted at a recent pan-Arab forum in Lebanon.
"They don't want to see extremism in their own countries, but they'll support the most rigid man in Iraq," said one tribesman and al Dhari opponent, interviewed the day after the Anbar conference. "He calls it a pure Islam, but that just means following the Taliban's steps and (Osama) bin Laden's steps."
Coy about his own political ambitions, al Dhari refuses to participate in Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government "in any way, under any circumstances." The same day the prime minister was sworn in, the sheik issued a statement calling the hand-over "a deceit for the Iraqi people and the world."
These days, he travels with a phalanx of burly bodyguards toting Kalashnikov and AK-47 assault rifles. The sheik keeps his own pistol underneath the folds of his white, ankle-length gown to protect himself from would-be assassins and other "enemies of Islam." He said he has no intention of backing down from his hard-line stance.
"If they want to describe me as an Islamic extremist, I'm very happy. I'm close to my faith and I ask God to assist me," al Dhari said. "Am I an extremist just because I believe in doing what Islam asks us to do?"
(Knight Ridder correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CLERIC