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“The museum is a new idea and people need time to get used to it,” Sheik Mirza said.

But some in Iraq’s Sunni minority are not getting used to it, reflecting the religious divide that is never far from the surface here. Even more so than Shiism, Sunni Islam historically has frowned on depictions of the human form.

Many Iraqi Sunnis look down on the country’s Shiite majority because they allow depictions of Muslim figures in banners, flags or other religious paraphernalia.

For Sunni extremists, this is just further proof of their accusation that Shiites are not true Muslims.

Sunni extremists have sharply criticized the statues and Shiites who visit them.

“Believe it or not: wax museum for the turbaned in Najaf,” sneered a headline on one Sunni website.

“Idols reached Najaf,” thundered another.

“The pre-Islam era of paganism is returning,” warned a comment on a third website.

A leading Sunni cleric was more diplomatic.

“It is not right to erect statues whether made of wax or of anything else. That is haram [religiously forbidden] because it is an emulation of God’s creation,” said Sheik Ahmed al-Taha, who is the preacher of the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad, a key Sunni house of worship. “It is similar to what heathens do.”

Different ideas, different views

Some Shiites are also uneasy. While Shiism allows more latitude for the depiction of faces or busts, the full-body wax figures are for many a step too far. Mr. al-Najafi said it is OK to have half a statue but not the full body.

The hard-line Shiite movement known as the Sadrists, followers of the late ayatollah, want the statue of al-Sadr taken down.

“The people behind this museum bear the responsibility before God,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a senior Sadrist lawmaker.

Sheik Mirza is careful not to speak against the marjaiyah, whose edicts are practically law in this Shiite majority country. But he points out that various Shiite clerics have different ideas about the statues’ appropriateness.

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