- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

BAGHDAD — For Sheik Mohammed Ali Mohammed al-Ghereri, a Sunni cleric, the question is no longer whether his followers should fight the Americans, but how they should do so properly.

“The holy warriors should have a clerical leader with them to advise them on all points, such as how to properly treat the Americans they capture,” he said in his austere mosque in the Zafarenieh district.

For Sunni cleric Abdul Sattar Abdul Jabbar, the question is no longer whether his followers should kidnap foreigners, but which ones they should seize.

“Isn’t the trucker who brings supplies for the Americans and helps the occupation also part of the occupation?” asked Sheik Abdul Jabbar, a member of the Association of Muslim Clerics, the country’s largest Sunni religious grouping. “I think so.”

For Mohammed Amin Bashar, a Sunni cleric and professor at Baghdad’s Islamic University, the limits of the classroom debate are clear.

“When two students come to us and have a disagreement, we tell them it’s all right to disagree,” he said. “The important thing is that we have a unified position in resisting the occupation.”

Among Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority, the United States can count on a few high-ranking clerics to counter radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s incendiary calls for holy war.

But among the Sunni “ulema” — the clerical leaders who guide the Sunni masses — the calls are increasingly strident for armed opposition to the United States, no matter the cost.

“There is no discussion,” said Imam Mahdi al-Sumaydai, a high-ranking Sunni cleric who had been jailed for six months by the Americans for his radical teachings. “Jihad is a must in the religion to defend your property, your honor or your religion. How can anyone deny our right to jihad?”

Even the recent wave of beheadings, which have shocked international observers, are deemed acceptable by at least some Sunni religious authorities, who argue that beheading is no worse than the bombs that U.S. aircraft drop on Iraqi cities.

Publicly, U.S. officials and aides to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi continue to describe those who violently resist Iraq’s status quo as “dead-enders” — criminals, gangsters and losers of the former regime making a last desperate stand.

But on the streets, the clerical calls for holy war are reaching into the mainstream, seeping into a popular culture liberated by the same occupation they’re opposing.

Unencumbered by Saddam Hussein’s strict censorship laws, videos of armed mujahideen, or holy warriors, battling Americans — often set to rhythmic religious music — sell briskly at CD shops and in bazaars.

At Internet cafes, young people scan jihadi Web sites for news. Even among ordinary people, it’s become more acceptable to call for violence against Americans and their Iraqi supporters.

Bucking that trend is Sheik Adel Khalid Dawoud, a follower of the Islamic Salafi tradition that spawned the Wahhabi sect that influenced Osama bin Laden.

Sheik Dawoud originally encouraged jihad against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, but has come to doubt its value as the number of widows and orphans mounts in resistance strongholds such as Fallujah.

“The jihad itself is meant to remove injustice and harm from the back of the people,” he said. “If the jihad brings more harm to the people, then it is not justifiable.”

But most Sunni religious authorities dismiss such talk as not in line with Islamic teachings.

“The jihad is a necessity for each Muslim,” said Ziad Farhan, a master’s degree candidate at Islamic University in Iraq. “In Islam, there is either death or jihad. There is no other way.”

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