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Iraqi Religious Leaders Receive Threats from Militants - 2003-10-03

Religious leaders in Iraq have received death threats from religious militants and followers of former President Saddam Hussein. The clerics say they won't give in to blackmail.

Mujahedin, or religious fundamentalists, ordered a Sunni Muslim cleric in the Adhamiyah suburb of Baghdad recently to broadcast their message from the minaret, calling on followers to pick up weapons to wage holy war against the United States. When he refused, the militants said they would kill him.

He said, "They hung many papers on the wall outside the mosque threatening me with death. They asked me to speak to the people for them, but I refused."

The cleric asked that his name not be used, but said that he will not be cowed by threats. He believes it is better to ask U.S. troops to leave the country than to fight them with weapons.

The threat from the mujahadin is not an idle one. On April 10, prominent Shi'ite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei was murdered in the shrine of Imam 'Ali in Iraq's holy city of Najaf. He was the son of one of Iraq's most revered Ayatollah's, Abdul Qasim al-Khoei and had just returned from self-imposed exile in London.

In early September, another Shi'ite Muslim leader, Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, was killed in a car bomb in Najaf.

Iraq's media and people in the streets have speculated that what is behind the threats and assassinations is an attempt to drive a wedge between the Sunnis, who make up about 40 percent of the population, and the Shi'ite majority. But Hussein Shani, head of the ministry of religion, says that is not going to happen.

He said, rather than dividing the two groups, Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim's death has actually drawn them together. What happened was just the opposite, he added. Before Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim was killed, he says, maybe there was some separation between the two groups. But after his death, Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim became a symbol for both sides.

Still, religious leaders are taking no chances. Worshippers entering the Adhamiyah Mosque and religious shrine on the outskirts of Baghdad now must stand in line to get frisked for weapons before entering. A makeshift barrier blocks one lane of the street leading to the Adhamiyah Mosque.