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View from Baghdad: Shiites Free to Attend Mass Prayers - 2003-04-18

In the Baghdad neighborhood formerly called Saddam City, freedom on this Friday meant that tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims could fill the streets around their mosque for mid-day prayers for the first time in their memory. Under Saddam Hussein, such large gatherings were banned.

Tens of thousands of worshipers knelt on their prayer mats outside the Hekmah mosque. Lined up shoulder to shoulder, they filled the wide, rutted boulevard in the hot midday sun.

It was just four years ago that Saddam Hussein crushed an outdoor prayer service organized at the Hekmah mosque in memory of a popular spiritual leader, who had been killed along with his two sons. One worshipper at the prayer service this Friday said more than 300 people were killed in that crackdown.

On Friday, an enterprising young man laid out a pink cloth on a wooden table set up by the curb, and spread out photos of a murdered sheikh for sale.

Under Saddam's rule, prayers were confined to the mosques under the watchful eye of military intelligence officers, to prevent large gatherings that could turn into anti-Saddam protests. This Friday, after prayers, there were peaceful demonstrations in some parts of the city, calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq and for U.S. forces to go home.

More than 1,000 young Iraqi men toting AK-47 rifles guarded Friday's prayer service. Some wore gray uniforms that were looted from a government warehouse in the days after the battle for Baghdad ended.

They set up makeshift barriers using abandoned furniture, cement blocks and pieces of wood, where they could control the crowd and search vehicles trying to approach the area.

One guard with a rifle slung over his shoulder said they were worried that armed units loyal to Saddam Hussein, known as the Fedayeen Saddam, might try to disrupt the prayers.

Local residents at the service say they now call the neighborhood - formerly known as Saddam City - Sadr City, after a revered Shiite cleric, Sheikh Bakr Sadr, who died in 1986.

A representative of the religious clerics of the Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq arrived a few days ago with a group of religious students, to help restore law and order and organize the neighborhood. Amid efforts by coalition forces and various Iraqi groups to build new organizational structures in Baghdad, the mosque's administrative council says it operates independently and has no need to coordinate with the other groups.