Magazine article The American Prospect

Man in the Iron Mosque: Radical Sunni Cleric Sheikh Mahdi Al-Sumeidayih Was Held in Abu Ghraib Prison-And He and His Salafi Followers Are Hardly in a Forgiving Mood

Magazine article The American Prospect

Man in the Iron Mosque: Radical Sunni Cleric Sheikh Mahdi Al-Sumeidayih Was Held in Abu Ghraib Prison-And He and His Salafi Followers Are Hardly in a Forgiving Mood

Article excerpt

IF THE AMERICAN JAILERS OF SHEIKH Mahdi al-Sumeidayih hoped to take the fire out of one of Iraq's most radical Sunni clerics, they might have been glad to hear the hesitant, almost beseeching tone in his voice less than a week after his release.

"I told them that I do not support violence, that we have nothing to do with it," al-Sumeidayih told me, recounting the constant interrogations during his five months in custody, mostly in Abu Ghraib prison. "I said we are peaceful, we have nothing against the Americans. When they asked me to go on television to state my opposition to the resistance, I said, 'I can't, I couldn't, I'm caught between two fires. The resistance would kill my wife and children.'"

He trailed off, gathered the skirts of his robe, swept out of his office, and made his way through the hundreds of worshipers waiting for him for the weekly Friday prayer service. He took the podium and listened silently to the opening ritual chanting of "Allahu akhbar" ("God is great"). Then, he began his sermon, and hellfire and damnation came open.

"I have a message from the Abu Ghraib prisoners to all Iraqis and the world!" he thundered. "What Saddam Hussein failed to do in 35 years--to unite the Iraqis against the Americans--George [W.] Bush has succeeded in doing in only one year. Each single Iraqi feels hatred and hostility toward American troops. Yes, there were some, especially young people, who thought the United States would be the great hope, the big democracy," his voice dropping to a sarcastic whisper.

"But what we experienced in Abu Ghraib will never be forgotten or forgiven.... Believe me, not a single prisoner feels any love for America, not in the smallest amount, not anywhere in their body."

As chief imam at the Sheikh Ibn Taymeya Mosque in southwest Baghdad, al-Sumeidayih is chief of the Iraqi Salafi movement, a radical Sunni sect. The Salafis are believed by Iraqis and American officials alike to be a building block of the anti-American guerrilla resistance. But with anti-American sentiment growing fast among the general Iraqi public, the Salafis are no longer far out of the mainstream. Increasingly, they are part of it--along with their equivalent among the majority Shia, the followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

It is hard-line sectors like these that may matter more to the future of Iraq, at least in the short and medium terms, than the new government so painstakingly and awkwardly cobbled together by U.S. and United Nations diplomats. This new government, which took shape in early June and takes nominal control of the country June 30, will be fighting more than just a wide array of problems--from high crime and unemployment to a national power system that is still producing less electricity than under Hussein's regime. It will be fighting its own irrelevance in the streets.

The abuses of Abu Ghraib have combined with a welter of other resentments to boost the insurgency and virtually guarantee that Iraqi guerrillas of all stripes will keep killing American soldiers in significant numbers for the foreseeable future.

While there are perhaps a greater number of Iraqis who hope for a moderate, Western-style democratic future for their country, the radical Islamists are gaining, bolstered by the nationalist sentiments of Iraqis who bristle at the apparently unending presence of more than 150,000 foreign troops. An increasing number of Iraqis warn that unless the Islamists are allowed to share power in some way, rather than being marginalized and demonized, they will make the country ungovernable. …

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