- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite mosques are moving into a vacuum left by Iraq’s ineffective national government, providing education, health care and other social services — all with an overlay of religious instruction.

“We try to improve the cultural and educational side of people to make sure we get a clean society,” said Adell Hizad, a computer science graduate who helps run one of the 80 Shi’ite education centers in Iraq. About half of them cater to women.

The main goal of the Shaheed al Mehrab network, funded by Shi’ite mosques, is to “inform people about religious teachings,” but it also provides literacy and political science classes, training in computer use, first aid and other services.

The courses are taught at mosques, local schools and colleges.

But with the everyday violence in Iraq and the government’s inability to deliver essential social services, the association is reaching out to victims of terrorism, orphans (mostly female), widows, unemployed women and the handicapped.

“We are helping more than 25,000 families in Iraq,” said Miss Hizad, sporting a neck-to-toe tan coat and a matching scarf, worn over her hair and chin.

The association also helps female students who are trying to get married but don’t have the means, giving them clothes, money and furniture. It also helps unemployed men who need money to wed.

One of the network’s largest projects is to work with young girls. Shi’ite Muslim tradition calls for girls to start covering themselves from age 9.

“We try to make her understand the change from girl to woman,” Miss Hizad said. “We do not force her to wear the hijab, but we tell her how to learn the procedures, give them clothes to cover them and explain that this is the correct way for Muslim women.”

In the Shi’ite-run Bettul House, small girls wearing their first white scarves walk past a small library filled with religious texts.

“This is a cultural house where women are trained. We have cultural and religious courses, and psychology courses, computer and sewing classes, and marriage counseling,” said Om Ibrahim, who runs the facility. Her office is filled with posters of the prophet Muhammad and one with the names of Badr Brigade members killed by dictator Saddam Hussein, who was ousted in 2003.

The Iranian-trained Badr Brigade is the armed wing of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Because of the violence, Om Ibrahim said, many children have not only lost their childhood, but also are becoming angry and withdrawn and difficult for their parents to cope with. Psychology courses aim to help mothers deal with that stress.

Every summer, the Shaheeb al Mehrab association joins other Shi’ite groups to organize field trips to the countryside for children, courses in computer use, sports events and Koran reading championships.

“They taught my kids some English and French, they showed them how to use the computers, and it was for free,” said Abu Sara, a father of three.

“There are not enough of these organizations, and they have a limited budget, and normally they work under a political party or [religious] organization, so they are not moderate,” he said.

“But with a government that can do nothing, I think they are very important, at least until the government can stand up again and provide all these services,” he said.

Om Ibrahim has lofty goals for her small center: a sports club, a swimming pool for women only and more education. But even as she proudly showed the two computers she has to work with, she conceded that the equipment is not being used because electricity is available only four hours in the day and there is no money to pay for a generator.

Om Ali, a teacher who works for Shaheed al Mehrab in the Akademiya section of Baghdad, said her mission is to teach women their rights, but within certain religious parameters.

“A woman must have a softer job than the male so that she does not lose herself [like] Mrs. Thatcher,” she said, referring to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “She became more male than female because of her job. Our saying is that you can’t use a refrigerator as a washing machine,” Om Ali added, smiling.

Men are not allowed in the women’s offices without permission.

Etha Hussein, manager of the Akademiya office, said that in the summer one of the larger centers caters to about 6,000 students, while a smaller center in the mixed Shi’ite-Sunni neighborhood of Mansour receives 30 to 50 women per day.

She explained that one of her most important jobs is to collect the social-benefit-claim papers of the retired, unemployed, handicapped and orphaned and take them to the ministries to expedite the otherwise slow paperwork.

“This is our job — to cover all the spaces” left by the government, Mrs. Hussein said.

The money comes through a tithing system: Each Shi’ite Muslim must contribute one-fifth of his or her salary to the religious leadership — the Marjahiya. The money collected is distributed to the mosques or related associations. Money also comes in from abroad, say association and mosque officials.

“The Marjahiya now has the responsibility of the whole government on their head,” said Sheik Razad Altaee, 54, a religious teacher who lives at a husseiniya — Shi’ite religious center — in Mansour.

His room is monastic, with a cot, a plastic chair and an empty communal refrigerator filling the small space.

Outside his door are sacks of rice and tea, gathered for Shi’ites forced from their homes by sectarian violence.

Sheik Altaee, whose wife was killed when attackers stormed his house after he advocated closer ties between Shi’ites and Sunnis, works to keep young men away from violence.

As a member of the local mosque, he works during the long, hot summer months with boys ages 6 to 12, teaching them to read the Koran. Other instructors teach computer use and foreign languages. The courses are designed by the mosques and taught by volunteers, he said.

“The only thing I have to give people is religion,” Sheik Altaee said, fingering his prayer beads as a water-cooled air conditioner stirred his white traditional garment.

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