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Friday, April 9

Iraq's moderate Shiites under siege from Islamic radicals

By John Yaukey | GNS

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's moderate Shiites, who have been cooperating with U.S. military and civil authorities and want to play a major role in a democratic government, are vital American allies in a nation teetering on chaos.

This is why they're also the sworn enemies of Islam's most violent radicals.

A recent audiotape, purported to be from al-Qaida operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, calls on Iraq's Sunni Muslims to slaughter their Shiite countrymen, claiming that they are not true Muslims and are ``the ears and the eyes of the Americans.''

Beneath the rebellion by radical Shiites raging in Iraq is a brewing war within Islam. It is rooted in fundamentalists' hatred of any Muslims seen as allied with the West. The intent in Iraq is to destroy U.S. plans for democracy, but ultimately they want to drive Americans and their influence out of the Middle East.

Even modest success by these revolutionaries would be disastrous for the United States, reversing democratic reforms across the Arab world and turning the region into a fertile ground for the kind terrorism that exploded Sept. 11.

These extremists are widely believed to have been behind the March 2 bombings of Shiite mosques in Baghdad and Karbala.

Indeed, the Shiites are convinced of it.

In Kadhimiya, a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad with long boulevards of jewelry shops and fruit stands, the accusatory fingers all point to the same place: Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is home of the Wahabis, a hyper-fundamentalist sect within Sunni Islam that bred Osama bin Laden and like-minded extremists who see even moderate Muslims as enemies.

``They (the Wahabis) want war with us,'' said Ali Jasem Kadam, a young Shiite wandering Kadhimiya with his friends. ``They think we are bad Muslims. Yes, they say we are not Muslims at all. They want to kill us.''

Shiite Muslim keeper of the Kazimiya shrine in Baghdad, Mohammed Saed Hussein al-Hassani, shown March 15, says "We expect our people will again come under attack." The shrine was attacked March 2, when three suicide bombers set off explosives inside and near the mosque. (Jeff Franko | GNS)

Brutal bombings

Whoever was responsible for the March 2 mosque bombings was out to kill and anger Shiites, and they succeeded.

The attacks took place on the Ashura, the most sacred day of the Shiite calendar.

It's a time when the devout gather by the hundreds of thousands in the holy city of Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad, to honor the slaying of patriarch Imam al-Hussein.

As crowds of Shiite pilgrims flogged themselves in ritual guilt, suicide bombers struck, killing more than 100 people.

The same day in Baghdad, bombers struck at the Shiite's Kazimiya shrine.

In all, more than 180 pilgrims were killed.

The attacks sparked rage and rioting, but ultimately failed to whip the Shiites into violence.

``We know the source of the hatred and we will not let it infect us,'' said Mohammed Saed Hussein al-Hassani, keeper of the Kazimiya shrine.

Looking forward, the Shiite calendar is heavy with foreboding.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims are expected to converge on Karbala again this weekend for the Arba'in, another festival honoring the ancient Shiite martyrs.

It's an especially volatile atmosphere with radical Shiite militias now in control of Karbala.

``We expect our people will again come under attack,'' al-Hassani said. ``We know the Wahabis will not rest.''

Roots of terror

The Wahabi hatred of the Shiites goes back centuries.

The Wahabis consider the Shiites apostates largely because their brand of Islam reveres a populous hierarchy of saints. The austere Wahabis, with their narrow focus on Allah, consider this akin to idolatry.

``Among the hard-line Wahabi clergy there is outright hostility toward the Shiites,'' said Shaul Bakhash, an expert on Shiism at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

It's not fair, however, to blame Wahabism alone for the terror now plaguing Iraq, and indeed, much of world.

Some of the roots go back almost a century to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which formed in the 1920s in opposition to the British colonial presence.

The goal of the brotherhood was to restore Islamic law and values in the face of growing Western influences.

In the 1950s, it gave rise to an offshoot of radical thinkers impatiently seeking to purify Islam through revolution rather than doctrine. Among them was a scholar named Sayyid Qutb, who, after two years of study in the United States, returned to Egypt horrified by what he called America's ``sexual playgrounds.''

Qutb's American foray inspired one of Islam's most famous literary works, the lyrical 30-volume ``Fi Zalal al-Koran," or ``In the Shade of the Koran.''

It is at once beautiful in its treatment of the Koran's verses, and unforgiving in its analysis of them. Qutb advocates strict adherence to Islam and death as the only acceptable end for all the world's infidels.

Qutb was executed in Egypt for his views, forcing many of the brotherhood's like-minded intellectuals into exile. Qutb's brother, Mohammad fled to Saudi Arabia where be became a professor of Islamic studies.

Near the end of his career, he encountered a wealthy young Saudi pupil who would take brother Sayyid's teachings and shake the world.

His name was Osama bin Laden.

It was in bin Laden that Wahabi intolerance fused with Qutb's radical embrace of violence.

Here, Iraq's Shiites and Americans find common cause in their loathing of a terrorist out to get them both.

In Baghdad's Boratha mosque, Shiites resist spitting when they talk about bin Laden, as they would on the street, but they curse him nevertheless.

``He wants Muslims to kill Muslims,'' said Diah Hassan, who escorts guests of the mosque. ``For that we hate him.''