Shiite anger at the U.S. occupation of Iraq boiled over here Tuesday, with thousands marching through the streets accusing American troops of violating Muslim customs and unjustly arresting a Shiite cleric.
Adding to the infuriation, Shiite political leaders said, is a new U.S. plan to appoint an interim political council of Iraqis. Some Shiites see this as a thinly disguised move to limit the influence of their religious leaders in the postwar administration of Iraq.
Other political organizations, including the former exile group the Iraqi National Congress, also are dismayed at the plan put forth Sunday by top U.S. occupation administrator L. Paul Bremer III. The plan to name a council of 25 to 30 prominent Iraqis would scuttle an earlier proposal for a broad national conference to elect an interim government.
Amid the rising anger, the U.S. Central Command reported Tuesday that another U.S. soldier was killed. The soldier, assigned to the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, died late Monday after a patrol came under fire from automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades near the town of Balad, north of Baghdad. The soldier was not identified pending notification of relatives.
Attacks on U.S. troops have become more frequent in recent days; American officials blame the violence on remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Another assault took place Tuesday at dusk on a street in the Mansour district of Baghdad, near a popular ice cream stand.
Witnesses said a young man threw a grenade into a U.S. Humvee. The soldiers inside managed to flee before the grenade exploded, slightly injuring one person. Troops fired back at the attacker, who ran down a side street, apparently wounded, said Command Sgt. Maj. Dale Paff, who was standing guard at the scene. Paff said an intensive hunt was underway to find the assailant.
Tuesday’s demonstration by about 3,000 people through the streets of western Baghdad began at the Rahman Mosque, a huge edifice begun by Hussein in his bid in recent years to style himself as a defender of Islam. The uncompleted mosque has been claimed by the Shiites, which Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime persecuted.
Led by white-turbaned sheiks from the Hawza Shiite seminary in Najaf, the demonstration was ostensibly staged to demand the release of a Shiite cleric taken into custody Monday and to protest the intrusion of U.S. soldiers into Iraqi homes during weapons searches.
Many of the marchers were incensed by rumors -- denied by the American forces -- that U.S. soldiers were touching Muslim women during the searches, which would be a violation of the customs of the Islamic world and a stain on the families’ honor.
But an underlying motive for the protest appeared to be to remind the U.S. occupation forces of the strength of Shiite leaders and their ability to bring large numbers of faithful into the streets on short notice if their concerns are not met.
“The Americans claim to be democratic, but what we have seen of them is not democracy,” said one of the protest leaders, Sheik Maalan Assari of Baghdad, as his followers thronged into a square, blocking traffic in all directions.
“Their president claimed that he came to liberate Iraq, but now they have admitted that they are occupiers,” he said.
Unbeknownst to many of the protesters, the sheik who was arrested by U.S. troops Monday had been released and sent back to his suburban Baghdad home early Tuesday before the march demanding his freedom got underway.
Jassem Dawood Said told The Times that he had been held about 24 hours and interrogated about whether he had been inciting anti-Americanism in his speeches at his mosque in the Doura suburb.
“Certainly, it is not true,” he said, seated on a carpet as about 100 of his followers watched. He accused the U.S. troops of keeping him in a place “meant for cows” with no bed and no bathroom.
“The one thing that is true -- if they don’t do what they promised in favor of a democratic government, a really democratic government, then our attitude toward them will change,” he said.
Elsewhere in the city, the Leadership Council, which comprises seven former opposition groups, said it still favors holding a national conference. Its members held a second emergency meeting in two days to hash out a unified response to Bremer’s plan, with Iraqi National Congress spokesmen threatening to convene the national conference even without U.S. backing.
“The U.S. cannot cancel a conference led by Iraqis,” INC spokesman Entifahd Qanbar said. “Yesterday at the leadership meeting, it was reemphasized that the conference will go on.... The national conference is an Iraqi-led effort. This is not an American issue.”
If the national conference moves ahead, it raises the prospect that there could be two dueling bodies -- one U.S.-appointed and another assembled by the seven former exile parties -- claiming to represent the Iraqi people.
“The process of expanding the council in preparation for a committee for a national assembly is quite urgent,” said Hamid Bayati, spokesman for the main Shiite opposition group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, indicating his group also is not abandoning the idea of a national conference.
But he stopped short of a direct challenge to Bremer and the occupation authorities, saying his group would continue dealing with them as well.
The conflict goes to the heart of how much sovereignty Iraqis can claim now that 150,000 U.S. troops are in their country.
For many Iraqis, it is humiliating that U.S. officials would choose their representatives for them. Holding a national conference to choose the interim administration would be preferable, in their view, because the selection would be without foreign influence.
The conflict is particularly acute for Shiite Muslims, who make up about two-thirds of the population and want to see their majority reflected in the makeup of the interim government. They also fear that U.S. officials would favor Shiites who espouse a secular vision for the country over those who hope to enshrine religious values in the first postwar government.
“The Shiites feel robbed from having a chance at power,” said a senior member of an ethnic Kurdish faction who asked not to be named.
Even the two Kurdish parties in the Leadership Council, traditionally closer to the U.S. and pragmatic regarding occupation officials’ shifting plans, back the plan for a national assembly but believe it need not conflict with Bremer’s proposal.