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Iraqi clerics express willingness to tolerate new government

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In their first sermons since Iraq regained sovereignty, clerics at some major mosques on Friday expressed a willingness to tolerate, if not embrace, the United Nations-endorsed interim government.

They continued to condemn the presence of foreign troops, but also to denounce attacks on civilians, which government officials have blamed on foreign terrorists.

In a country where the political views of ordinary people are greatly influenced by what they hear from the pulpit, the relatively moderate language from clerics amounted to a small victory for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's administration, which took office Monday.

Attacks on Americans persisted, however. A Marine was killed in action in Anbar province and another died of wounds sustained there the previous day, the U.S. military said. The Marines have lost six men in the last four days in that area, which includes Fallujah, where al-Qaida-linked leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi is believed to be operating.

Botched rocket attacks on two Baghdad hotels favored by Westerners injured one man Friday.

Much of the good news could be found in what the clerics no longer were saying. At two Sunni Muslim and two Shiite Muslim houses of prayer in Baghdad, none of the clerics urged congregants to attack or resist the government. None denounced its members as illegitimate American puppets. Only one, a Shiite follower of radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, said the presence of U.S. troops and advisers meant Iraq wasn't really sovereign.

That's not to say that worshippers didn't express those views in interviews outside the mosque; many did. But it suggests—as does recent polling of Iraqis—that people may be willing to give the new regime a chance they never gave the American-led civilian occupation authority.

"We are not here to praise the interim government, but we need a good life," Sheik Ahmed Hassan al Taha al Samarrai told about 500 sex-segregated worshipers at the Abu Hanifa mosque, which serves a district heavily populated by former members of ex-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and former secret policemen.

"It is not allowable to blame the interim government with unsupported charges," he said. "We support the government, and we ask them to choose the appropriate people who will not embarrass us."

At Umm al Qura, another Sunni mosque whose followers tend toward militancy, Sheik Ahmed al Samuraie wasn't so accommodating. He warned the new government not to act as a "tool for the occupation" and urged it to bring back the old Iraqi army. But he added: "Sooner or later, the occupation will end and the Iraqi army will stay. I ask the Iraqi people to have patience until life gets back to normal."

Al Samuraie repeatedly described Allawi's government as "temporary" and said it must prove itself by building a strong military. But he didn't call it illegitimate.

In the two Shiite mosques, clerics praised the start of legal proceedings against Saddam, who brutalized them for decades.

At the Buratha mosque in the al Utafiyah neighborhood, Imam Jalal al Deen al Sagheer thanked the interim government "on behalf of the martyrs' families" for bringing Saddam to trial so quickly. The mosque is affiliated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a large Shiite group that's heavily vested in the interim government.

There was no such thanks from the other major Shiite bloc, followers of the anti-American al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is maintaining a wary truce with U.S. troops.

Imam Aws al Khafaji, who led the prayer service at the Hekma Mosque in Baghdad's Sadr City, demanded the death penalty for Saddam, but argued that Allawi's government was trying to distract attention from the sorry state of Iraq's basic services by parading Saddam before the public.

"If Saddam Hussein needs a trial, then the others should be tried along with him, such as America and its administration of evil," he said.

He added: "Up until today the sovereignty hasn't been handed over to the Iraqis. It's only a game ... what has happened is only a change of title from `the occupational forces' to `the multinational forces.'"

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(Knight Ridder correspondents Hannah Allam, Tom Lasseter and Dogen Hannah contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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