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Shia Clergy Push for Islamist State

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Shia clergy push for Islamist state

Majority sect builds up power base and ridicules western 'liberty'

Ewen MacAskill in Najaf

Saturday May 3, 2003

The Guardian

The acting director of the Qadissiya hospital in Sadr City, Baghdad, is Sheikh Tahsin al-Ekabi, a Shia cleric. As he chatted to three people at the same time amid the chaos of post-Saddam medical services, a woman knocked on his office door and requested two tins of powdered milk. He signed a piece of paper and told her to take it to the local mosque, where she would be given the milk.

While the US and their Iraqi allies discuss the country's future, Shias have taken control on the ground.

The Shia - the majority sect of Islam in Iraq - who were suppressed by Saddam, are running not only hospitals but every aspect of life, including community and cultural centres and police stations.

Mr Ekabi said: "When the US invaded, there was a power vacuum. We are providing security. Most of the patrols in the streets are being done by clerics because the people will obey the clerics more than they will obey foreigners. There have been no US patrols in Sadr City for two days."

Sadr City , formerly Saddam City and home to two million Shias, has been renamed after one of the most revered Shia clerics, Imam Mohammed al-Sadr. He was killed by Saddam in 1999. Freshly painted pictures of Sadr have replaced those of Saddam all over Sadr City.

The US is not happy that Shia gunmen are guarding the hospitals and have said they will confront the problem. But even if the Shias hand over control voluntarily they are well-entrenched at local level.

This takeover has been replicated in other parts of Baghdad and in the cities further south, such as Basra, Kerbala and Najaf.

The future of Iraq will be decided not in the US-led talks among the approved opposition parties but behind a battered grey metal door in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, that protects the Hawza, the city's main Shia seminary where Iraq's leading clerics teach.

One of them, Sheikh Mohammed al-Yacobi, a former civil engineer who joined the clergy 12 years ago, is emerging as one of the key figures in the new Iraq. While some senior clerics are wary of becoming involved in politics, his supporters are not. Sheikh Yacobi told the Guardian: "Ninety-eight per cent of the people are Muslims. The Iraqi constitution must not commit to anything that will go against sharia [islamic law]."

He was guarded about saying what an Islamic constitution would mean in practice. But it was clear enough in the sermons delivered at mosques all over Iraq yesterday.

Preaching to tens of thousands worshippers at the Qadhimaya mosque in northern Baghdad, Sheikh Mohammed al-Tabatabi said: "The west calls for freedom and liberty. Islam is not calling for this. Islam rejects such liberty. True liberty is obedience to God and to be liberated from desires. The dangers we should anticipate in coming days is the danger to our religion from the west trying to spread pornographic magazines and channels."

Under Saddam, Iraq was a secular society. Women had equal rights with men and freedom to dress in western clothes. It was more lax than many of its neighbours about alcohol.

But Sheikh Tabatabi said: "We will not allow shops to sell alcohol and we ask for the closure of all such places and we ask you to use every available means to bring this about."

He added that women should not be allowed to wander unveiled around Qadhimaya City.

The former US general appointed by George Bush to help create a new government, Jay Garner, has said he would not allow an Islamist state.

But in the Hawza another cleric, Quais al-Khazaaly, said: "I think the right decision is to have an Islamist state. If the US blocks such a state and people want it, this will lead to lots of trouble with the US."

If Shias act in unison, they will rule Iraq. But they are fragmented. The Hawza is dominated by two groups, those around the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, a conservative, and those who follow Sadr, a more radical figure. There is also the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, led by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, which has been operating from Iran with a 15,000-strong army.

All the political parties vying for power in Iraq acknowledge the dominance of the Shia clergy. The Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon's choice, has pictures of Sadr on the walls of its offices in Baghdad. The Iraqi Communist party offered its condolences on the anniversary of the death of one of the leading figures in the Shia hierarchy.

At the Qadhimaya mosque yesterday, clerics told worshippers not to support any party until the Hawza decides. That decision, when it comes, will dictate Iraq's future.

Vying for control

· Shias are dominant sect in Iraq but were suppressed by Saddam Hussein, who is from minority Sunni sect. The Hawza in Najaf is the leading Shia seminary in Iraq · Leading figure in Hawza is the Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani. He is a conservative and lost credibility for never criticising Saddam

· Other dominant group in Hawza and most popular among Iraqi Shias are followers of Mohammed al-Sadr, killed bySaddam. His picture has replaced Saddam's in Shia areas. More radical than the supporters of Sistani

· Third grouping claims to be part of Hawza but is not recognised by other two. Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim heads Iranian-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. As an exile he does not command as much support as other two but he is well-organised and has private army, the 15,000-strong Badr Brigade

· Al-Da'wa party, fourth group, also suffers from having been in exile. Political offshoot of Sadr grouping, set up in 1950s as bulwark against secularism

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