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Report from Baghdad: Residents Attend Friday Prayers - 2003-04-18

VOA's Laurie Kassman in Baghdad attended Friday prayers at a mosque in a predominantly Shiite section of the city, and brings us this on scene report.

I am standing here in front of one of the main mosques of the section of the city formerly known as Saddam City. It is predominantly Shiite, and today, this Friday, is the first time since 1998 that these Muslims have been allowed to pray outside the mosque. There are throngs of Shiite Muslims here, tens-of-thousands, on their prayer mats in front of the mosque, for the first time since 1998.

In fact, the people of Saddam City have renamed it. Some call it Al Thawra, which means revolution. But others call it the city of Sadr, after one of their famous and revered imams, or sheikhs, religious clerics of the past.

It is a very orderly crowd, very disciplined. There are guards standing around, but it is very peaceful. The men with weapons are very courteous to everyone coming to the mosque. This is a very special occasion.

Now they are praying, facing Mecca, as is the tradition of the Islamic religion. As one, they pray. The street is packed with people. Across this wide avenue, which is probably six or seven lanes wide, and the crowd stretches for at least three or four city blocks. There are tens-of-thousands of people here.

This is midday prayers on Friday, when people gather at the mosque. They knew that this would be the first time they could actually pray outside the mosque, and people just flocked. For at least an hour before, they were walking, very peacefully, very calmly, past armed guards, who had their weapons pointed toward the ground, who have been asked by the mosque to secure the area, because they fear Saddam's supporters might try to disrupt the crowd. But it is very peaceful, very disciplined.

Now they are finishing their prayers. It is a very special moment for this area of the city, which is predominantly Shiite.