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April 4, 2003

Top cleric urges Shi'ites not to resist allies
By David R. Sands

     Iraq's leading Shi'ite Muslim cleric yesterday reversed course and urged his followers not to resist the U.S.-led effort to oust President Saddam Hussein, as U.S. forces in the central city of Najaf fought to secure a mosque sacred to the country's majority Shi'ite community.
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     In what U.S. military officials hailed as a milestone in the bid to undermine Shi'ite support for Saddam's regime, which is dominated by rival Sunni Muslims, Najaf's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a religious ruling known as a "fatwa" instructing his fellow Shi'ites not to oppose the U.S.-led invasion.
     "We believe this is a very significant turning point and another indicator that the Iraqi regime is approaching its end," U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said in a briefing in Qatar.
     Iraq denied that any such ruling had been issued.
     The grand ayatollah, who had been placed under house arrest by Saddam's regime for more than a decade, had issued a fatwa in September calling on all Muslims to "stand toughly against U.S. threats" and to resist an invasion.
     The battle for the loyalties of Iraq's Shi'ites, an estimated 55 percent to 60 percent of the country's population who have long faced discrimination and repression under Saddam, has emerged as a key front in the larger war in Iraq.
     Shi'ite crowds in Najaf yesterday openly welcomed U.S. forces as they approached Iraqi troops inside the city's gold-domed Ali Mosque. The mosque is the burial place of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and a spiritual leader for Shi'ites.
     The reception was in sharp contrast to the reserved and even hostile reactions in Basra and other Shi'ite-dominated cities in southern Iraq.
     In a sign of the sensitive nature of the public relations war, U.S. forces refused to fire back at Saddam partisans who shot at them from inside the mosque. It was not clear how many Iraqi fighters remained holed up in the shrine as U.S. forces secured large swaths of the city of 650,000 people.
     Yitzhak Nakash, professor of Middle East history at Brandeis University and author of "The Shi'is of Iraq," said he considered the ayatollah's new fatwa "very good news" for the U.S. war effort.
     He said Iraq's Shi'ites have complicated feelings about the coalition military action. They detest Saddam but have bad memories of the absence of U.S. support for past uprisings against the regime and a desire to avoid accusations of being "insufficiently nationalist."
     Noting that he had not seen the text of the ayatollah's new ruling, Mr. Nakash said the fatwa appeared to be a shift toward urging neutrality for Iraq's Shi'ites in the war.
     "I think that is as far as he could go in the context. It is too much to expect him to come out openly in support of one side or the other," he said.
     U.S. military officials in Qatar yesterday warned that Saddam may be planning to bomb Shi'ite neighborhoods in Baghdad and blame coalition forces. More than a million Shi'ites live in a huge lower-class area of Baghdad known as Saddam City.
     "The action would represent just the latest chapter in a long history of aggression against innocent Iraqis by a regime that uses violence, torture and hunger as tools of terror and control," said Jim Wilkinson, spokesman for allied commander Gen. Tommy Franks.
     The charge that Iraq's regime may try to bomb its citizens and blame the allies comes soon after the coalition attributed scenes of carnage in a Baghdad market last week to Iraqi bombs, not to errant U.S. missiles as first reported.
     U.S. intelligence assessments in the region and at the Pentagon said the damage at the market bombing could not have been caused by coalition munitions, although they did not detail how they reached that conclusion.
     Saddam, who rose to power on the back of the secular Ba'ath Party, in recent years has attempted to appeal to Muslim sentiment, peppering his speeches with verses from the Koran and calling for a jihad, or holy war, against U.S. forces.
     Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said in an interview with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network that the country's Shi'ites remain loyal to the regime.
     "As Muslims, their fatwa is to resist the American mercenary forces," he said. "They are evil, and they should be considered invaders to be resisted."
     A further complicating factor in Iraq's religious divisions is the presence of a large armed faction of Iraqi Shi'ite exiles operating across the border with the support of Iran, the world's largest Shi'ite state.
     Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last week issued a pointed warning to the Iranian-based exile group not to insert its militia forces into Iraq as the coalition campaign proceeds.
     • Paul Martin contributed to this report from Qatar.

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