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Published: Friday, 8/13/2004

Area Shiites fret over tense situation in Najaf

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

In Toledo, as elsewhere, Shiite Muslims are anxiously watching the showdown in Najaf, Iraq, where militants are holed up inside one of their religion's holiest shrines.

Several local Shiites said yesterday that Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the militant Shiite faction hiding out in Najaf's Imam Ali Mosque, is widely regarded as a pariah by the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

They did not doubt U.S. military intelligence reports that said the militiamen inside the mosque may have rigged the shrine with explosives, possibly planning to destroy the building and blame it on the Americans.

"If anyone is stupid enough to blow up the mosque, it's Muqtada al-Sadr," said one Toledo Shiite who immigrated from Baghdad in 1979. He requested anonymity for fear of retribution against relatives still living in Iraq.

Dr. Zak Husain, a Toledo physician and a Shiite from Pakistan, said al-Sadr is needlessly putting lives in jeopardy as well as threatening the safety of the shrine where Imam Ali, cousin of Prophet Muhammad and founder of the Shiite branch of Islam, is buried.

The world's 120 million Shiites also believe that Adam, the biblical first man, is buried inside the mosque.

"I'm appalled at al-Sadr's behavior," Dr. Husain said. "It makes me mad that somebody who claims to be a cleric and a Shiite would put people or shrines in jeopardy. Someone has to shoot that al-Sadr."

The Iraqi Shiite immigrant, who said there are only a handful of Iraqi Shiites in Toledo, said Muhammed al-Sadr, Muqtada's father and a prominent cleric who was assassinated in 1999, essentially disavowed his son, forbidding him from having any role in the Sadr Foundation, the social service organization he founded.

"Iraqi Shiites who know his father, who know Muqtada's background, know his father thought of him as being a thug. The majority of Iraqi Shiites never had any respect for Muqtada al-Sadr," he said.

He called al-Sadr an opportunist who is gaining popularity by exploiting Iraq's most ignorant and disenfranchised Shiites.

"By simply standing up to whoever is viewed as an oppressor, an occupier, in a very feverish way, he has attracted the young and the poor of the Shiite community who lived in slums and were most oppressed by Saddam," the Iraqi native said.

He pointed out that none of Iraq's ayatollahs, the nation's highest religious leaders, has endorsed al-Sadr.

When the war first began, Dr. Husain added, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is now in London for medical treatment, urged Iraqis not to oppose the American troops nor to aid them.

"With that in mind, the people should have waited it out," he said. "If we are to follow the path of the imams, they never engage in battle unless it is absolutely forced, and they never endanger people for no reason."

Al-Sadr's vow to stay and fight in Najaf "until the last drop of my blood has been spilled" is particularly troubling, Dr. Husain said, because for centuries, Muslims have avoided bloodshed in Najaf, even taking their battles to neighboring cities rather than risk damage to the shrine and its adjacent cemetery.

Dr. S. Zaheer Hasan, a Sunni Muslim and president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, said the Imam Ali Mosque is sacred to all Muslims, not just Shiites.

The circumstances leading to the Najaf showdown are unclear, he said, citing as an example the possibility that the militants may have sought refuge in the mosque because "they were cornered from all sides."

But even if that were the case, he said, they should not be firing weapons from inside the shrine.

"They have no right to hit from within," Dr. Hasan said.

Dr. Husain said that if the Americans fire back, "unfortunately, they would be justified, although it would pain me immensely to see that."

Any damage to the Imam Ali Mosque, no matter the reason, would outrage Shiites around the world, Dr. Husain said.

"That would be like someone blowing up the Vatican," he said.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154



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