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Foreign Journal Moderate Iraqi Shi’ites Seem Tolerant, but How Much Power Will They Have?

May 6, 2003
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For now at least, the highest Shi’ite imams in Iraq are practicing what they preached throughout three decades of oppression and assassination under Saddam Hussein — tolerance.

On April 22, after he called on millions of Shi’ites to return loot plundered from the Baghdad National Museum, Sa’id Kamal Din Al-Mukadas Al-Ruweifi gave museum officials 22 Torah scrolls and manuscripts, along with dozens of other artifacts that had been stolen.

In mid-April, as the American invasion of the city sucked the last dregs of power from the regime, Iraqi looters stripped the museum of artifacts, air conditioners, even door hinges.

In an interview with JTA, Ruweifi, a follower of the Al-Hawza Supreme Clerical Council in Najaf and the arbiter of Islamic law for about half of Baghdad’s Shi’ites, looked puzzled when asked why he returned the Torah scrolls.

The two purplish, horn-like smudges on his forehead, marks of a devout Muslim who prostrates himself in prayer five times a day, inched upward: “True Islam respects other people’s belief in God. Muslims respect others, whether they be Christians or Jews, as long as they respect Islam.”

His voice husky with age and sickness, Ruweifi added that Jews once thrived in Iraq.

“We knew many of them. They were traders and lived and worked in the Al-Jorjia district in Baghdad,” he said. “We had nothing against them. In Iraq a person’s religion does not matter too much to the people.”

According to U.S. Marine Col. Mathew Bogdanos, who heads a task force charged with cataloging and retrieving the stolen artifacts, the “clergy has been instrumental in helping us.”

The Torahs were delivered in a “wooden chest with rivets that was about a yard wide, full of scrolls and manuscripts,” he said.

Bogdanos’ task force had distributed leaflets, put advertisements on the one radio station still playing and walked the streets to convince looters that the ” ‘no questions asked’ policy meant no questions asked,” he said.

Little worked, until leaders like Ruweifi stepped in.

The response “was tremendous,” Bogdanos said. “They made our job a lot easier.”

Swaddled in a black robe and bulky black turban, Ruweifi looks older, his spade-shaped beard much whiter than in the pictures on his living room wall.

Under Saddam, Iraq’s Shi’ites endured suffering, assassination and deprivation. Imams that got too powerful were executed. Constant pressure by the regime may have contributed to the severe heart attack suffered by Ruweifi — an honorary title for a Shi’ite leader — which has left him with greatly reduced mobility.

The Shi’ites of Sadr City, a slum of more than a million people formerly known as Saddam City, routinely were rounded up by the paramilitary fedayeen groups and tortured, executed or forcefully conscripted.

During a tour through the lawless sector, where gunfire crackles day and night, one encounters dozens of men with crimson marks on their ears, legs, chests and backs, legacies of torture under the Saddam regime.

The ugly face of the district evinces years of poor sanitation, barebones infrastructure, nonexistent health care and minimal education. Saddam purposely left the district in poverty and filth to prevent a possible Shi’ite rebellion against him.

Shi’ite leaders now command the allegiance of as much as 60 percent of the population.

“All we want is a constitutional democracy that represents the population of Iraq,” Ruweifi said — in other words, a government that enshrines Shi’ite majority dominance.

The Al-Hawza seem to have dismissed the hard-line stance adopted by the Iran-sponsored Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. That group rejects the U.S. presence in Iraq and supports rumors that the invasion was part of a Zionist plot to steal Iraq’s oil wealth.

Residents of Sadr City even kicked out a few members of the Badr Brigades, the Supreme Council’s military branch — mainly Iraqis who took shelter in Iran and returned with the war — when they ensconced themselves in a neighborhood school.

Magnanimity, or at least caution, colors the rhetoric of moderate Shia loyal to the Al-Hawza sect and to its leader, Sa’id Muhammed Al-Sistani.

Preaching last Friday at the Sunni Al-Rahman Mosque, built according to the colossal specifications of Saddam’s megalomania, Qassen Al-Tahi, a chief Al-Hawza member, called on the thousands of Shi’ite faithful in attendance to follow the peaceful path of the prophet Mohammed.

Instead of whipping the crowd into a fury, Al-Tahi preached patience and tolerance.

“The Americans are civilized and admired in many respects,” he instructed the crowd.

He advised his people to respect the Americans and hoped that the changeover to a new government goes smoothly, without affecting “women, children and the poor.”

He also chastised the public for looting.

Not a word was spoken about the “Zionist plot” or about Israel. While Saddam used the Palestine question ceaselessly to win support across the Arab world, Israel seems to be of little importance to most ordinary Iraqis.

Especially in Sadr City, the Shi’ites seem wary of Palestinians here who glorified Saddam throughout his decades of brutality. According to reports, hundreds or thousands of Palestinians were kicked out of Iraq as soon as Baghdad fell.

“No,” Ruweifi wheezed, “our duty to our people is to make them do good, to follow God’s wishes, to stop the stealing and the lawlessness.”

Part of this means returning the heritage of other religions, whose history is as long as anyone’s here, Ruweifi said: “It is their country too.”

The Jewish community in Iraq dates from the time of the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. Even though the Persian king who conquered Babylon 70 years later allowed Jews to return to their homeland, the majority chose to stay put, as Babylon was far richer and more cosmopolitan than contemporary Jerusalem.

The majority of the community made aliyah in the late 1940s and early 1950s after growing tensions between the Arab world and the new Jewish state led to pogroms and anti-Semitism.

Today, a few dozen elderly Jews still live in Baghdad but they refused to be interviewed, fearing for their safety if their religion is publicized.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Israel’s government made some noise about “rescuing” Iraq’s Jews by bringing them to Israel, but it was unclear how enthusiastic the Jews were about going, and the proposal has faded from the headlines.

As for the Jews who fled Baghdad pogroms for Israel in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ruweifi believes they should be welcomed back.

“If elections bring freedom and people want to come back that is their choice. They are our brothers, we must respect all the minorities here,” he said.

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