Sunday, April 13, 2003

Shi'ite clerics move to assume authority in Baghdad

I'm in charge, only for the sake of God," said Sayyid Sadeq Aalaq, 60, the leader of the small, modest Imam Ali Mosque, the first to be built in the neighborhood. But he added, "I don't covet power or authority."

Claiming control over six of the neighborhood's 79 districts, he seemed to have both, and he worked with an enthusiasm that belied his age. Since Hussein's fall, he has used the mosque's loudspeaker -- powered by a generator during Baghdad's lingering blackout -- to broadcast an edict by Sistani forbidding looting. He has organized meetings with former police officers and is eager for them to return to their jobs. He has also started forming popular committees that would oversee the return of electricity, water distribution and food handouts, once the task of the Baath Party that crumbled hours before U.S. troops captured the city.

On his own initiative, Aalaq organized a meeting Saturday for leaders of the neighborhood's mosques. Among their priorities is to ease tensions between Sunnis and Shiites that erupted Friday at Abrar Mosque -- a rare Sunni place of worship in the neighborhood. In the dispute, a gun battle broke out that lasted four hours, until dawn. Although no one was killed, it was a sobering reminder of underlying tensions.

In days regulated by the call to prayer, Aalaq said, he is driven every two hours by a neighbor in a battered 1980 Toyota to inspect checkpoints in his territory. This morning, he went to bakeries, insisting they make bread available to residents. "I had to order them," he said, leaning on a cane and draped in a gray cape with gold trim. "I had to be forceful. They said, 'Okay, we'll bake.' "

In Aalaq's remarks are signs of what will be required for credibility in postwar Iraq -- a record of resistance to the Hussein government and independence from the Americans. He said his authority was derived, in part, from his family's suffering. Seven of his relatives were executed in 1982 for membership in the Dawa Party, an outlawed Shiite group that, for a time, waged a bloody struggle against the government. He never saw their bodies. Over a three-month period, his family was simply handed their death certificates by the neighborhood Baath Party official, the names Kadhim, Hussein, Salam, Adnan, Hassan, Hayat and Mohammed scrawled across the top.

His son, Mortadha, fled the neighborhood after the riots in 1999, and was smuggled into Lebanon for about $250."Everybody likes me. They follow my orders," Aalaq said. "They know we are good people, and they know we have suffered."

With far less bitterness, he carries the same reticence in dealing with U.S. forces, refusing to meet any as long as they stay in Iraq.

"The Americans asked to talk to me, but I refused," Aalaq said, sitting in an office at the mosque. Overhead was a portrait of Ali, the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law whom Shiites believe was his rightful heir. "If I met with them, my popularity would collapse."

It's a fascinating, lengthy look at a very complex situation.