Inside the ancient Bratha Mosque, the white-turbaned cleric called on the Shiite throng to recall their suffering at the hands of Sunni Arab insurgents: the February bombing of the holy shrine of Samarra; how it collapsed the golden dome and desecrated the graves of their ancestors.
Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir exhorted Shiites to visit the ruined holy site out of defiance, if not faith. Their opponents “should know that this was not the first time the graves of the imams were destroyed,” Saghir thundered during his Friday sermon.
By the end, Saghir had lambasted the Shiite-led Iraqi interim government, denounced Sunni tolerance of violent sectarianism and charged the U.S. with negligent disregard for Iraq’s welfare and security.
It was typical of Saghir’s sermons, which many Iraqis and international observers regard as a barometer of mainstream Shiite public opinion. But on Friday, three suicide bombers had moved into position at the mosque.
Timed to inflict maximum damage, the bombings killed at least 78 people and injured more than 150. But Saghir, unscathed by the blasts, immediately went on television to accuse a Sunni Arab newspaper of fomenting the violence by publishing unsubstantiated claims that his mosque held Sunni detainees.
Saghir and the Bratha Mosque stand at the vital intersection of politics and religion in Baghdad. Saghir is both a religious representative of Iraq’s foremost Shiite theologian, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and an elected representative of a leading Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
At a rally in Baghdad on Saturday, SCIRI leader Abdelaziz Hakim praised Saghir and said the attackers were hoping to keep Shiites out of the political process. However, Hakim added, “The [Shiites] are the majority in Iraq, and everyone will have to accept that reality.”
Sunni Arabs said Saghir’s comments after the attack were reckless and his overall outlook was partisan.
“We condemned the attack on the mosque, and he is still throwing accusations all over the place,” said Ammar Wajih, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab political group.
Saleh Mutlak, who is with another Sunni political group, charged that Saghir “has played a big role in dividing the heart of the people.”
The Bratha Mosque had been targeted several times before in drive-by shootings and was nearly hit by mortar rounds. After one round exploded several hundred yards away, Saghir ordered his followers to remain seated during prayers.
He has publicly denounced Shiite reprisals against Sunni Arabs and has excoriated the rival sect for tolerating terrorists in their midst. And to the chagrin of Sunni Arab leaders seeking a unity government, Saghir is also a fierce proponent of majority rule in a nation where 60% of the population is Shiite.
In an interview last year, a senior Western official said that efforts to conduct peace talks with some Sunni insurgents might result in “blowback,” including from Saghir’s Bratha Mosque.
Unlike that of another more radical cleric, Muqtada Sadr, Saghir’s support extends beyond Iraq’s impoverished Shiite communities. An articulate constant on Iraqi talk shows, Saghir is the aggrieved voice of the college-educated Shiite middle class.
In one recent address, Saghir complained that the real news of Iraq was not reaching the wider world, and read out the address of his website.
And after criticizing the United States’ postwar agenda in Iraq during his last sermon, Saghir referred his listeners to the State Department website. “There is a study by the National Security Council about the victory in Iraq,” he told them. “Compare their stance before the war and the reality of today.”
Days after Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime fell, Saghir returned from years of exile in Syria and Lebanon and set about reestablishing Bratha, one of the capital’s oldest mosques, as a center of religious learning. Bratha’s library, which was dismantled by Hussein, was restored and its religious schools reconvened.
Before elections, the mosque printed brochures and sponsored voter education campaigns. And it once again was host to thousands of Iranians who had long hoped to visit a courtyard well that is believed to have been blessed by Imam Ali, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad and whom Shiites consider his rightful successor.
Central to Bratha’s ideological arsenal, however, are Saghir’s Friday sermons.
In the sermons and media interviews, he often focuses on Iraqi Shiites’ long history of persecution. But he also uses his addresses to remind Shiites of their strength, numerically and morally, and admonishes them to use that strength to participate fully in Iraq’s political process.
Saghir has also called on worshipers to inform on suspected insurgents, putting the Shiite mosque in the position of acting as a tip center for a Shiite-dominated police force that Sunni Arabs accuse of abuses. Bratha is located in a mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood in the center of Baghdad that had a large insurgent presence until last year.
Many Shiites regard Saghir as a fierce guardian of their sect and a political interpreter for the masses.
“He speaks for the party and for Sistani,” said Salama Khafaji, a Shiite member of parliament. “But beyond that the sheik has a very impressive way of affecting people with his speeches. He has his own ideas.”
Besides the mosque’s religious role, Saghir’s status as a lawmaker gives him the ability to interpret political discourse, said his deputy at the mosque, Abu Mustafa.
“That is why worshipers, even Sunnis, are coming to this mosque to hear these political and religious speeches,” Abu Mustafa said.
On Friday, Saghir explained recent closed-door negotiations within the United Iraqi Alliance, the leading Shiite bloc headed by SCIRI, over appointments in the new government.
Only two days before the mosque bombing, Saghir had added his voice to the chorus of Shiite leaders calling for the ouster of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a member of the Islamic Dawa Party, which is part of the bloc.
Jafari has thus far refused to step down, despite strong opposition from several Shiite political parties, including SCIRI, and the Kurdish and Sunni blocs.
“The other side of the United Iraqi Alliance has the right to choose the prime minister, as it is the largest faction,” said Saghir, referring to SCIRI.
Jafari “was given one month to form the government, but if the Kurdistan Alliance or the Sunni bloc refuse to deal with him, then we will have to find another prime minister,” Saghir said.
His sermon also covered recent reports about Al Qaeda’s activities in Iraq and the problem of Shiites who are leaving their home areas because of insurgent attacks.
Later, as the worshipers filed out, there was a massive roar and a flash of fire.
Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin, Saif Rasheed, Shamil Aziz, Suhail Ahmed and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.