- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

BAGHDAD — An explosion that killed nine persons inside a mosque Monday night was triggered during a bomb-making class in the building, U.S. military officials said yesterday, offering the strongest evidence yet that Muslim clerics are participating in a violent campaign against U.S. forces.

“A bomb-making class was being taught inside the mosque,” said Lt. Ryan Fitzgerald, a Central Command spokesman.

He said U.S. forces were continuing to cooperate in an investigation, alongside the Iraqi police, into the incident in the troubled city of Fallujah, scene of some of the sharpest resistance to U.S. forces since two confrontations in April left 18 Iraqis dead and roughly 80 wounded.

Furious residents of the city, located 30 miles west of Baghdad, remain convinced that the United States deliberately targeted the mosque. Many of them yesterday swore vengeance.

Lt. Fitzgerald said coalition forces “certainly do not target civilian institutions like that.”

“We try to stay out of mosques out of respect for Iraqi traditions,” he said.

Sheik Leith Khalil, the radical imam at the ruined Al-Hassan mosque, died Tuesday from injuries suffered in the explosion, according to angry worshippers who have threatened to start a holy war.

The Central Command spokesman did not indicate whether U.S. authorities believe the sheik was participating in the explosives class or simply happened to be in the vicinity.

The same cleric had called for a jihad, or holy war, against the U.S. presence in Iraq during a sermon on Friday, fueling suspicions in an already highly charged community that the Americans targeted the mosque as punishment.

American troops had warned one unidentified imam that he faced arrest if he continued to incite violence against coalition forces in his sermons.

“There is no God but Allah, and America is the enemy of God,” chanted marchers outside the Al-Hassan mosque yesterday.

“We will fight a holy war until the last drop of blood. Even boys who are 10 years old will fight until their last drop of blood,” an Iraqi man at the mosque was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

U.S. protestations of innocence had little impact on the crowd. When an American soldier said the United States was doing its best to restore water and electricity, one crowd member yelled: “We don’t want your services. Just get out of Iraq.”

All Arab satellite channels featured footage of the angry demonstration without reporting on the American response.

Two American servicemen died elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, one from injuries sustained earlier. That brought the total number of fatalities since May 1 to 26, according to the Associated Press count.

A U.S. Marine was killed in Karbala, south of Baghdad, and three were injured during mine-clearing operations, the military reported.

The Washington Times reported late last month that opponents of the U.S. presence in Iraq have been recruiting former military officers and others to help them develop and improve their explosives-handling skills.

In a surreptitious tape recording made for The Times, an Islamist sheik was heard trying to persuade a former military officer to make explosives.

“You are with us, against the Americans,” the sheik said on the tape. “We want you to make explosive charges.”

The sheik, who identified the group he represents simply as “Jihad,” also said he would prefer that the officer make the explosives himself. But if not, “You can teach some other guys who are working with us how to make these bombs.”

Another group, called Jaish Muhammad, or Army of Muhammad, has issued two leaflets, one of them this week, calling on security personnel from Saddam Hussein’s defeated regime to join it in a struggle to drive the coalition from Iraq.

Two Islamic hard-line groups have forged an alliance of convenience with the Ba’athists, who now are reorganizing under the name Al Awda, which means “the Return.”

This group, several sources said, hopes to mount spectacular attacks to mark the anniversary of the July 17 through July 30 Ba’athist revolution.

The Islamic groups, despite the secular nature of the Saddam regime, have pledged to act in coordination with the Ba’athists.

Shi’ite Muslims, who predominate in the south and in parts of the capital, have conducted their own generally peaceful protests against coalition rule.

Apart from one incident in a southern Iraqi city that left six British military police dead, the Shi’ites have so far refrained from outright confrontation.

They are being organized by powerful religious figures, most of whom are influenced by neighboring Iran.

That country sheltered many Shi’ite leaders during Saddam’s rule and has successfully infiltrated tens of thousands of its supporters back into Iraq.

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