- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — A group of influential Sunni Muslim clerics who once condemned Iraqi security force members as traitors made a surprise turnaround yesterday and issued an edict that urges citizens to join the nascent police and army.

Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai, a cleric in the Association of Muslim Scholars read the edict during a sermon at Baghdad’s Um al-Qura mosque, which was called the Mother of All Battles mosque when it was built by former dictator Saddam Hussein with minarets that look like Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The cleric said that joining the Iraqi security forces was necessary to prevent the country from falling into ?the hands of those who have caused chaos, destruction and violated the sanctities,? the Associated Press reported.

The decree by the militant group of 64 Sunni clerics and scholars also urged enlistees to refrain from helping foreign troops against their own countrymen.

Nevertheless, the announcement could strengthen Iraqi security forces, which are trying to take over the fight against the Sunni-led insurgency.

It reflected a recognition by the Sunni group, which had refused to participate in January elections, that Iraq’s interim government is slowly taking control of the nation and paving the way for a U.S. withdrawal.

Also yesterday, an explosion damaged a ninth-century spiral minaret that is one of Iraq’s most recognized landmarks. The blast in the central city of Samarra blew a large hole in the structure, police Lt. Qasim Mohammed said.

Witnesses said two men climbed the 170-foot-tall minaret, then returned to the ground before the explosion occurred. The minaret is a symbol of Samarra’s past glory and is the only remains of a mosque dating to the Abbasid Islamic dynasty. It is featured on Iraq’s 250-dinar bill.

U.S. troops have used its top as a sniper position, and last year, the Islamic extremist group linked to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi flew a flag from its peak.

Sgt. Brian Thomas, a spokesman for the 42nd Infantry Division, said coalition forces had stopped using the minaret.

In ongoing violence against Iraq’s faithful, a bomb near a Sunni mosque in Kirkuk killed one civilian heading to Friday prayers.

In the holy city of Karbala, Shi’ite pilgrims began leaving for home at the end of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad and one of Shi’ite Islam’s most important saints.

Fighters from the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency staged several deadly attacks on Shi’ite pilgrims in the days leading up to the religious event.

In another sign of growing Iraqi anger at the insurgency, calls to a hot line in the Sunni city of Ramadi, set up by the U.S. military a year ago, have doubled since more than 8 million Iraqis faced down the threat of violence to vote in the Jan. 30 election, Reuters news agency reported.

The increase suggests a shift in popular sentiment against militants in Ramadi, a city of 300,000 people that has been at the forefront of the insurgency.

?We’ve seen a big surge in calls over the last month and a half,? Lamia Shamoun, one of two persons manning the hot line in shifts of up to 14 hours a day, told Reuters.

?We’re now getting around 40 calls a week,? she said yesterday, speaking from a U.S. Marine base in Ramadi. ?It’s been really busy. We’ve had to increase the shifts.

?The Iraqi people are sick and tired of the insurgency, they don’t want it any more. Since the election, they’re more confident. They feel ready to give out information,? she added.

Calls involve anonymous tips on everything from the names of insurgents to the location of upcoming mortar attacks and the whereabouts of roadside bombs, hide-outs and weapons. Sometimes, callers say which U.S. convoys are going to be targeted.

There have been other instances of Iraqis turning on the insurgents, such as a Baghdad shootout last month in which shopkeepers turned their guns on three hooded terrorists who were shooting at passers-by.

Across the country, there are also signs the insurgency might be softening. Attacks against U.S.-led forces are down more than 20 percent nationwide since the election.

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