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Iraqi Shiite Muslims Take Advantage of Newly-Found Freedom - 2003-07-03

For more than three decades, Iraq's Shia Muslim population suffered under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Now, that the regime is gone, the Shia are getting a taste of freedom, and they seem determined to have a greater say in the future of the country. On Fridays, the day of public prayer, hundreds of Muslims begin to gather at what was once the Saddam mosque. It is a huge, imposing structure, not yet finished. It was meant for the city's Sunni Muslim population, but since the fall of Saddam Hussein in early April, it is the Shia who come here to worship.

The majority of Iraqi Muslims are Shia, but under the previous regime, they were not allowed to observe their religious rituals, nor were they allowed to hold public Friday prayers. Now, they are reveling in new-found freedom.

Mohani Hamid Mutaiye says that, under Saddam, there was no mosque for the Shia in this neighborhood. He says, "these are pictures of our holy men, our imams, people we respect. There are also posters of the late Ayatollah Khomenei of Iran."

It is the potential Iranian influence that has the Americans and some Iraqis worried. They fear that if Iraq's Shia majority comes to power in a future government, it may turn Iraq into a theocracy, based on the Iranian model.

The main Shia organization is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Founded in the early 1980s, its followers spent years in exile in neighboring Iran, with the aim of exporting Iran's Islamic revolution to their own country. Its military wing, the Badr Brigades, were trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Now, many of the exiles have returned to Iraq, and they are seen as a formidable force in the country's future. The Supreme Council's main power base is the south of the country, but the group also operates throughout Baghdad.

And, in the capital, its grassroots support is drawn from poor Shia neighborhoods, such as Sadr City.

The Supreme Council center here includes a warehouse, where volunteers hand out food, blankets and other supplies to poor families.

Abdu Satar Abbas is in charge of the warehouse, and says the organization helps support 10-12,000 families with food aid.

Mr. Abbas says the supplies they distribute come from Iran. He says the aid goes to the poorest families and to those who had family members killed by the Saddam regime.

The Council also helps operate local clinics that offer free medical care for the poor. It is not uncommon for religious groups throughout the region, even those with armed affiliates, to carry out humanitarian work that the government simply does not or is not able to provide. That sort of humanitarian work often translates into popular support and political strength.

Abdu Sadar Abbas says his focus is on supplying humanitarian aid, not on politics. Mr. Abbas says Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni, want a democratic government.

In recent interviews, Supreme Council leader Ayatollah Mohamad Bakr al Hakim has skirted the issue of the country's political future and of his own ambitions. He says it is up to the people of Iraq to decide.

The power vacuum created by the fall of the Saddam government has encouraged religious groups and parties to try to fill the void. Some religious leaders say the lack of security has led them to form neighborhood groups to try to keep order and stop looting.

Others have used the pulpit of the mosques to warn their followers against cooperating with the Americans, and to warn women to wear Islamic dress and adhere to stricter religious traditions.

Some of these warnings have alarmed the U.S led civil administration, U.N. agencies and many Iraqis. Washington has made it clear it will not allow the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic state, or another dictatorship.

Islamic parties here seem eager not to run afoul of U.S. wishes, but at the same time, they seem eager to take part in forming a future Iraqi government.

Nadim Issa, professor of political science at Baghdad University and secretary-general of the Fadila Islamic Party, one of the smaller Shia parties says the Fadila Party wants to establish an Islamic government in Iraq with new views. It calls for democracy, an Islamic democratic government. Professor Issa says the party explains its views to the people. He adds, "We will not use violence or dictatorship."

He says the Iraqi people must decide what sort of government they want. He says it is up to the various political parties to convince people to vote for them.

Democracy, representative government, human rights, freedom, these are words cited by Iraqis when asked what they hope their future government will be like.

Some want a secular government; others want an Islamic state. But, says political science professor Hafez Amar Delamey, what all Iraqis want is for the U.S.-led administration to move more quickly to start a process that will allow Iraqis to choose how they are governed.

Professor Delamey dismisses American fears of a Shia government. He says the Shia are not a single, cohesive force, and even if they came to power, he does not believe they would follow the Iranian model.

He then adds a message directed at those who removed Saddam Hussein from power: People cannot first preach democracy, he says, and then be afraid to apply it.