The Man in the Iron Mosque

If the American jailers of Sheikh Mahdi al-Sumeidayih hoped to take the fire out of one of Iraq's most radical Sunni clerics, they might have been glad to hear the hesitant, almost beseeching tone in his voice less than a week after his release.

"I told them that I do not support violence, that we have nothing to do with it," al-Sumeidayih told me, recounting the constant interrogations during his five months in custody, mostly in Abu Ghraib prison. "I said we are peaceful, we have nothing against the Americans. When they asked me to go on television to state my opposition to the resistance, I said, 'I can't, I couldn't, I'm caught between two fires. The resistance would kill my wife and children.'"

He trailed off, gathered the skirts of his robe, swept out of his office, and made his way through the hundreds of worshipers waiting for him for the weekly Friday prayer service. He took the podium and listened silently to the opening ritual chanting of "Allahu akhbar" ("God is great"). Then, he began his sermon, and hellfire and damnation came open.

"I have a message from the Abu Ghraib prisoners to all Iraqis and the world!" he thundered. "What Saddam Hussein failed to do in 35 years -- to unite the Iraqis against the Americans -- George [W.] Bush has succeeded in doing in only one year. Each single Iraqi feels hatred and hostility toward American troops. Yes, there were some, especially young people, who thought the United States would be the great hope, the big democracy," his voice dropping to a sarcastic whisper.

"But what we experienced in Abu Ghraib will never be forgotten or forgiven. ... Believe me, not a single prisoner feels any love for America, not in the smallest amount, not anywhere in their body."

As chief imam at the Sheikh Ibn Taymeya Mosque in southwest Baghdad, al-Sumeidayih is chief of the Iraqi Salafi movement, a radical Sunni sect. The Salafis are believed by Iraqis and American officials alike to be a building block of the anti-American guerrilla resistance. But with anti-American sentiment growing fast among the general Iraqi public, the Salafis are no longer far out of the mainstream. Increasingly, they are part of it -- along with their equivalent among the majority Shia, the followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

It is hard-line sectors like these that may matter more to the future of Iraq, at least in the short and medium terms, than the new government so painstakingly and awkwardly cobbled together by U.S. and United Nations diplomats. This new government, which took shape in early June and takes nominal control of the country June 30, will be fighting more than just a wide array of problems -- from high crime and unemployment to a national power system that is still producing less electricity than under Hussein's regime. It will be fighting its own irrelevance in the streets.

The abuses of Abu Ghraib have combined with a welter of other resentments to boost the insurgency and virtually guarantee that Iraqi guerrillas of all stripes will keep killing American soldiers in significant numbers for the foreseeable future.

While there are perhaps a greater number of Iraqis who hope for a moderate, Western-style democratic future for their country, the radical Islamists are gaining, bolstered by the nationalist sentiments of Iraqis who bristle at the apparently unending presence of more than 150,000 foreign troops. An increasing number of Iraqis warn that unless the Islamists are allowed to share power in some way, rather than being marginalized and demonized, they will make the country ungovernable.

Skating carefully at the edge of what the Americans would consider incitement -- which would thus guarantee his re-arrest -- al-Sumeidayih cited in his sermon the "heroic victory" of the residents of Fallujah, where U.S. Marines retreated in April after three weeks of bloody urban combat against thousands of guerrillas. "The people of Fallujah say their freedom was obtained by sacrificing their blood," al-Sumeidayih said. "They want each Iraqi to realize that the resistance is legitimate."

As the faithful at Sheikh Ibn Taymeya Mosque dispersed after the end of the sermon, it was not hard to find people who sympathized (or more) with the guerrillas. Mohammed Abdullah, a tall, bearded man in traditional robes, said he was visiting from Fallujah for the day to congratulate al-Sumeidayih on his release. He said life in Fallujah had improved because the mujahideen, or holy warriors, were in control. "Security in Fallujah is very good now; it is very safe and there is no stealing, because the religious and patriotic sentiment of the people is one," he added.

But Abdullah's detailed comments on Fallujah military matters, as well as the deferential circle of people around him, indicated that he is a leader of one of the city's guerrilla cells. "There are many different groups of mujahideen in Fallujah, big and small, and we are just one of them," he said. "The people's hatred of the Americans is complete, it is total. Even people who are not involved with the struggle, who are not religious, they love death like other countries prefer life. You can feel it and touch it. Before, this [feeling] was only in Ramadan time. Now it is always."

For some Iraqis and many Westerners, the Salafis are just as fearsome as the followers of Shiite firebrand al-Sadr. Both groups advocate strict Islamic law, including the concept of the guardianship of the jurisprudent, or absolute rule by senior clergy. Their view of women's rights is highly restrictive -- although not as much as the government of neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Al-Sumeidayih said that Salafis in Iraq are less extreme than their brethren in neighboring countries. In Iraq, he said, they do not generally approve of takfir, the extremist Muslim practice of excommunicating non-devout Muslims and permitting other Muslims to wage war against them and despoil their possessions and women.

But with Western ideals now deeply tarnished by the Abu Ghraib scandal and by the U.S. administrators' failure to provide basic services to the Iraqi public, religious fundamentalism is growing fast. "People have become much more religious because of what they have lived and seen," said Adel Mohammed, a 22-year-old laborer who says he was released in late May after eight months in U.S. detention, mostly in Abu Ghraib.

He recounted his abuse at the hands of U.S. guards -- and especially, he says, by one Egyptian translator, a Coptic Christian who bragged to all prisoners, "I came to torture Muslims."

Alternating between a stolid, rock-like demeanor and tight fury, Mohammed declined to state an opinion on the guerrillas. But he insisted that the thousands of prisoners now being released in the wake of the scandal have become super-devout.

"Almost everybody has turned to God," he said. "You have no idea how much."

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