The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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From Saddam to Shia clerics
- Stars and stripes rises, so do hardliners of iraq

Washington, April 14: The Americans who “liberated” Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny are finding themselves caught between the devil and the deep sea.

There is concern here that Shia clerics — whose images in black robes, turbans and beards in neighbouring Iran still make Americans stiffen — are quickly filling the void left by the Baath Party.

Yesterday, as millions of Americans sat back complacently and watched images of rescued US prisoners of war, the leadership here was grappling with “disturbing” clips in the European media of looters in Baghdad’s Saddam City bringing back cartloads of stolen goods to the Sadjad mosque in this huge Shiite slum.

Looted goods, returned by vandals, are now piled high on the premises of Sadjad and other mosques in Saddam City. They have been surrendered following calls by Shia clerics that it is against Islam to steal or to profit from stolen goods.

European TV stations also showed black turbaned Shia religious leaders in Saddam City going round in jeeps fitted with loudspeakers preaching peace and order and asking people to keep calm.

Saddam City has already been renamed by its residents: not as Bush city or Blair town to celebrate its “liberation”, but as Sadr city.

Imam Sadr of Najaf was once the “potential” Ayatollah Khomeini of Iraq, but Saddam Hussein had him executed more than two decades ago, thus making him an icon among his country’s persecuted and deprived majority Shias.

American officials are already saying that their troops did not shed blood to hand over Iraq to Mohammed Bakr al Hakim, the ayatollah who is in exile in Tehran and heads what is known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. An Islamic Republic of Iraq is among the organisation’s objectives.

Ominously for the Americans, the group has boycotted the meeting in Nasiriyah tomorrow of sundry Iraqi factions called by the coalition to discuss the country’s future.

“We are not going to attend the Nasiriyah meeting because it is not to the benefit of the Iraqi nation,” Reuters quoted Abdelaziz Hakim, a leader of the group, as saying.

“From the beginning, independence has been our manifesto. We don’t accept a US umbrella or anybody else’s. The Iraq nation refuses any dependency,” he said.

Washington’s problem is that as Iraq descends into chaos, there are only two poles in the country to which its society can be tethered. One is religion and the other is the Baath Party or what remains of it.

That poses a hard choice for the Americans. The crisis they face is that the challenges that call for immediate action will not wait for a decision to be made in Washington, London or even at the UN, as the virtual takeover of Saddam City by the mullahs has shown.

US intelligence is now convinced that the uprisings widely predicted by the Americans as their troops marched into Iraq did not happen because Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al Hakim sent messages from Tehran asking his followers not to take sides during the invasion and withhold support both from Saddam and the Anglo-American forces.

Washington had tried to co-opt the ayatollah into its campaign as early as August last year when he was invited here for a meeting hosted jointly by the state department and the Pentagon.

The ayatollah refused to attend and only sent his representative to the conclave in which other players in post-Saddam Iraq such as Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan participated.

Latest reports from Saddam City on European news networks, meanwhile, said religious leaders in the mammoth, impoverished neighbourhood were preparing detailed inventories of looted goods so that they could be returned to hospitals and relief agencies.

The mullahs were also making arrangements through their network for distributing milk powder and food items stolen from warehouses of Iraqi ministries to the needy.

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