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Inside the Mother of All Battles Mosque

Shady things are happening at Saddam's home mosque in Baghdad. Will the coalition's rules of engagement be enough to keep the peace?

5:30 PM, May 1, 2003 • By DAVID TELL
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HERE ARE the first few grafs of a dispatch from Baghdad yesterday by Carol Rosenberg of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service:

The Iraqi capital these days appears to be awash in gunmen waving or shouldering automatic rifles. Members of a Sunni Muslim-led exile force suddenly set up checkpoints and snarl traffic in one neighborhood. Kurdish bodyguards screen visitors outside political party offices in another. Shiite Muslims pile into Mosques for Friday prayers, casually toting AK-47s they stole from government storehouses.

Three weeks after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government, quasi-independent militias are carving out turf in the 2,000-square-mile capital, mostly along sectarian lines, much like the Christian, Sunni, and Shiite militias that bedeviled Beirut, Lebanon, or the clans that sliced up the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Part neighborhood watch, part self-styled self-defense force, the Baghdad militias have armed themselves from the ocean of Iraqi army weapons that flooded the streets after the collapse of Saddam's iron-fisted rule.

So far, U.S. policy is primarily to leave the militias alone--U.S. troops are under orders to confiscate only those weapons they see while on patrol. When a new political system emerges, the U.S. theory says, Iraqis might abandon their flourishing, freewheeling weapons culture.

"As they taste freedom they've not been accustomed to for several generations, that is going to be one of the things that they themselves are going to want to eliminate," said U.S. Army Capt. Rick Thomas, a military spokesman.

Rosenberg describes the ubiquity of gangland-style gun ownership in post-Saddam Baghdad as a general problem. And it no doubt is. But some gangland-style gun owners are more dangerous than others, as the anecdote Rosenberg chooses to close her story would seem, on further inspection, to suggest:

Last Friday, outside the Mother of All Battles Mosque in the al Shaawla section, armed men from the predominantly Sunni area piled into the sprawling walled complex topped with minarets made to look like Scud missiles. Then U.S. Army Sgt. Joshua Cardenal passed by on patrol, skidding his Humvee to a halt when he spotted a single gunman headed to worship. He consulted a commander by radio, and then gingerly took the weapon from the man's hands, over Iraqi protests that dozens of men in the mosque were also armed.

But mosques are strictly off-limits to U.S. troops, he said, so he would not try to disarm the other worshipers. Cardenal said he doesn't make policy. "If it were up to me, I'd let nobody have a rifle," he said. "You never know what's what and who's who. It's not as though they screen these people."

What exactly American and British military patrols ought to do, instead, when confronted with reports of armed men congregating in Iraqi mosques is a tricky issue, politically and practically. But at the very least, the name of the mosque Carol Rosenberg writes about here--and the fact of its unusual, Scud-shaped minarets--are a pretty compelling hint that the blanket, hands-off-until-fired-upon rule the coalition appears to have adopted with respect to Islamic religious sites in Iraq may not be the surest means to guarantee that country a de-Baathified and democratic future.

The Mother of All Battles Mosque, or Umm Al-Ma'arek, was Saddam Hussein's personal house of worship, constructed in memorial celebration of Iraq's "victory" over the United States in the first Gulf War and consecrated, if that's the right word for it, with a Koran purportedly written in the maximum leader's very own blood. It was from Umm Al-Ma'arek, for months on end until coalition airstrikes knocked Iraqi television off the air, that Baath party-sponsored imams broadcast regular Friday sermons urging jihad against the invading Western "pigs and apes." (For a characteristically comprehensive report on these sermons, complete with translations and streaming video links, see the Middle East Media Research Institute's web site, here.) At least one of the imams in question, other news reports indicate, has since gone into hiding. Still, it can't be a good sign--can it?--that a Knight Ridder reporter, just within the past week, and in the presence of patrolling American soldiers, has witnessed "armed men from the predominantly Sunni area pil[ing] into" such a place.

Larry James, a correspondent for Voice of America, apparently witnessed the same incident, and his April 26 report confirms Rosenberg's account of the rules of engagement now being observed by U.S. troops in such circumstances: