Sheikh Mahdi Ahmed al-Sumaidi was detained in Abu Ghraib prison
early this year after a weapons cache was found in his Ibn Taymiyyah
mosque. Since released, his anti-US fervor is undiminished. "Neither
the occupation forces nor the government they installed is
acceptable,'' he says. "The legitimate power is the resistance."
Even so, he is grateful for the US invasion. "God uses many
tools,'' he says. "America's brutality has caused many to understand
that Islam is the answer to our problems. The only solution is
Sheikh Sumaidi is one of a cadre of Sunni preachers whose star
has risen sharply in the past year. No longer constrained or exiled
by a repressive regime, they are preaching jihad at key mosques and
pushing to make Iraq an Islamic state.
They are still on the fringes of mainstream Sunni practice here.
But amid almost daily firefights in the Sunni Triangle, these
radical preachers are emerging as the principal Sunni rallying
"The Islamists are growing up very quickly among the frustrated
and disadvantaged,'' says Sadoun al-Dulame, who runs the Iraq Center
for Research and Strategic Studies in Baghdad. "All the violence is
allowing extremists to mobilize and try to monopolize political
The preachers' opponents call them Wahhabis, after the dominant
religious ideology of Saudi Arabia. But many prefer to refer
themselves as salafy, which emphasizes their desire to return the
Islamic world to the practices that prevailed at the time of
Mohammad, which they see as a golden age. While the US project was
to mold a secular Iraq friendly to the West, the salafys' religious
beliefs are not far from Al Qaeda's.
Now, they're playing an increasingly visible political role. When
hostages are taken, diplomats quietly contact them, hoping they can
secure their release. When interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi wants
to negotiate with insurgents in the war-torn town of Fallujah, now
in the hands of Sunni jihadis, he goes through their mosques. And
increasingly, when young Iraqi Sunnis seek guidance in dealing with
a dislocating and fraught time in their lives, they turn to these
A receptive ear
Hussein al-Khaisi, who runs a small shop selling nuts and dates
in Baghdad, is one of scores of Iraqi men whose faith has deepened
since the US invasion, and he's now a regular attendant at the small
An Nur mosque in Baghdad. "During the US invasion, I saw so much
chaos and death that I turned to God,'' he says. "Now there is so
much corruption and violence that we need an Islamic government
according to sharia. That would stop a lot of the suffering we have
Sheikh Ayad Ahmed al-Jubari runs the An Nur mosque and says
attendance has grown since the invasion, which he says has helped
Iraqis see the truth of Islam. He's also been freer to speak his
mind - the regime of Saddam Hussein closely controlled political
activity at Iraq's mosques. He says ongoing fighting in the Sunni
triangle has drawn more people into his circle.
"The Americans wanted to make Fallujah into a place of terror,
but God wanted it to be a place to strengthen the resistance,'' says
Sheikh Jubari, who goes on to say that Fallujah is now a place of
near-miracles. He says the blood of men "martyred" in the fight
against the US smells like perfume and that, somehow, insurgents'
weapons seemed to never run out of bullets during the April
Sheikh Jubari also praises the beheadings of "spies" - like
Korean translator Kim Sun Il last month - and says it's appropriate
to stage attacks on anyone connected with the US.
Mr. Dulame says it's a mistake to focus exclusively on Sunni
groups - pointing out that Shiite religious movements like Moqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi Army have used murder and intimidation as well.
But most of the insurgent activity inside Iraq - be it car-
bombings of police stations, assassinations of top Iraqi officials,
or the gun battle between US soldiers and insurgents early Sunday in
the town of Buhriz that left 13 insurgents dead - is now conducted
by Sunnis, many radicalized during 17 months of fighting with US