Iraq is a diverse country of many ethnic and religious groups. But the majority of Iraqis, about 60 percent, are Shiite Muslims, many of whom have suffered human rights abuses at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Like many Iraqi-Americans, the head of the largest Shi'a Muslim congregation in North America is following the events back home and hoping the end will bring a just and democratic future to Iraq.
In New York, Imam Sheikh Fadhel al-Sahlani closely monitors the massive U.S.-led military operation in Iraq on television.
Sheikh al-Sahlani said he has lost telephone contact with his own family in the southern Iraqi city of Basra and expresses concern about the possible deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians. But he said he supports the effort against Saddam Hussein's regime because of the hardships the Iraqi people have endured.
"We are against any kind of war, but as a last solution to remove this cancer from the body of Iraq, since it is the last solution, it can be justified. And we pray to God to make this war as short as possible and to let the Iraqis have a new government following at least the law of human beings and to be a part of the rest of the world, living with our neighbors and other nations peacefully in harmony," Mr. al-Sahlani said.
For the last 12-years, Sheikh al-Sahlani has been living in New York, where he heads a Shi'a Muslim center made up of about 5,000 families, primarily from Pakistan, India, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
The imam recalls that when he was in Iraq, Saddam Hussein pressured religious leaders to praise the Iraqi dictator in their sermons. Those who did not were imprisoned and tortured or simply disappeared. Sheikh al-Sahlani said he knows at least 25 people in Iraq who still cannot be accounted for.
He said he regrets that the United States did not support the failed Shi'a and Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime in 1991, which left thousands dead or missing and massive numbers of refugees.
"But now, since the aim is common between Iraqis and the United States, there is a saying: 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' So we both have the same enemy and that is Saddam. So we are a friend to this limit. After that, we never know," he said.
Sheikh al-Sahlani said that most Iraqis want the United Nations to lead the rebuilding effort in a post-war Iraq. "After the war, we, the Iraqis, would like to rule our country in a democratic way with respect for our view, our religious view, our traditional way and we wish that nobody will impose a kind of rule on us," Mr. al-Sahlani said.
Sheikh al-Sahlani said that he believes that the guidelines for a democratic Iraq can be put in place in about one-year and he says the diverse Iraqi population and Muslim sects can co-exist peacefully in a post-Saddam era.