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Sunnis, Shiites struggling for control of mosques in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—At a humble, green-domed mosque in the heart of Baghdad, a grizzled preacher named Sheik Ahmed Yassin was standing his ground. Gunmen had killed five of his followers and kidnapped two of his sons. Threats had thinned his congregation, and the worshipers who still came rushed to their cars after prayers to avoid becoming the latest victims.

To Yassin, every drop of blood is worth the fight to keep his sanctuary in the hands of Sunni Muslims, who built it 25 years ago, and away from the rival Shiite sect.

"They'll have to kill us all before they take this mosque," Yassin vowed last week.

The battle over the Hassan bin Ali Mosque is perhaps the bloodiest in a two-year power struggle that has turned Iraq's holiest places into sectarian battlegrounds. Shiites have seized up to 40 Sunni mosques since Saddam Hussein's regime fell, according to Shiite and Sunni clerics. While Sunnis view the campaign as a land grab, Shiites say they're reclaiming plots that Saddam stole from Shiite landowners.

Shiite Muslims, who have taken control of the new Iraqi government, are a majority in Iraq, although they're a minority in the Islamic world and have been bitter rivals with Sunnis for more than a thousand years. Iraq's insurgency is led mainly by Sunni Arabs and violence between the sects is on the rise, raising fears that civil war could be in the offing.

Saddam's fall in 2003 ushered in a renaissance of Shiite Islam after decades of brutal oppression under his Sunni-led regime. Just days into the war, Shiites dizzy with newfound religious freedom stormed into dozens of Sunni mosques and have prayed there ever since. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, cautioned members of his sect against going too far. In the early days of the war, he ordered that Sunni mosques be restored to Sunnis and asked that their imams be protected.

But many prominent Shiite clerics say the ayatollah's fatwa, or religious edict, doesn't cover mosques on land that originally belonged to Shiites.

"Because of the illegal orders of the toppled regime, the Sunnis were able to build mosques that exceeded their needs while the Shiites were left to pray in the streets under the burning sun," said Salah Abdul Razaq, spokesman for the government's Shiite endowment. "Saddam was using his oil revenues and our taxes to build his palaces and mosques. These should be for all Iraqis, not just the Sunnis."

Saddam's Ministry of Religious Affairs approved the construction of at least 32 presidential mosques, Abdul Razaq said. Many of them were built on land seized from Shiite owners, who had no choice but to stand by and watch. After the regime fell, he said, the U.S.-led occupation authority split the Ministry of Religious Affairs into two separate endowments, one for Shiites and one for Sunnis.

The Shiite endowment immediately staked claims to mosques, including Hassan bin Ali. Sunnis moved to block the takeovers, and violence has colored many of the disputes. Abdul Razaq denied that Shiites had resorted to violence in their campaign to reclaim mosques, but said the stolen land must be returned.

"According to the endowment regulations, all the properties taken from Shiites should go back to them, even when the Sunnis refuse," he said.

Even mosques that changed hands peacefully have been targeted. The Al Mahabba Mosque, now used by Shiites despite its location in a heavily Sunni district, sits behind new concrete barriers and watchful guards. It has been attacked four times since Sunnis ceded it to Shiites in 2003. Grenades and gunfire have wounded worshipers and damaged the building.

"I'll guard this place with the last drop of my blood," said Malik Hassan, an armed Shiite security guard who was shot in the leg during one of the attacks. "After all, we're under the protection of God."

During Saddam's era, Sunni mosques often doubled as interrogation centers and meeting halls for the ruling Baath Party, said Sheik Mohammed Ali al Saadi, the Shiite prayer leader of al Mahabba. He said Sunnis fled so fast after the regime fell that they left behind documents and tape recorders that interrogators from Saddam's security forces had used. The discoveries only strengthened al Saadi's resolve to keep the mosque out of reach of the Shiites' former oppressors.

"It was taken in a peaceful way, and the Sunnis should realize we're looking for real unity," al Saadi said. "If they insist on overtaking our mosques, this means they're still the heirs of Saddam."

One of the most controversial mosques is also the largest. The half-finished Rahman Mosque, one of Saddam's final follies, was built as a gigantic monument to Sunni dominance. Today, however, it's Shiites who pray at the cavernous construction site, about the size of four football fields, in Baghdad's most upscale neighborhood.

Abdul Razaq said the Shiite endowment launched a fund-raiser for the $20 million it will take to complete what Saddam had dubbed "The Mother of All Mosques." Abdul Razaq said the work, the crowning glory of the new Shiite government, should be finished in about four years.

But the fight for Rahman isn't over. Clerics swatted away a plan to share the space—one Friday for Sunnis, one for Shiites—and are ready for a fierce tug-of-war that's likely to languish in the courts and inspire more violence in the streets.

"The Shiites took our mosques," said Adnan al Dulaimi, the head of the Sunni endowment. "One of them was about to be the largest mosque in the Middle East and maybe even in the world."


(Salihee is a special correspondent. Hannah Allam contributed to this story from Baghdad.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.