FALLUJAH – (IPS) A stepped up military offensive that targets mosques, religious leaders and Islamic customs is leading many Iraqis to believe that the US-led invasion really was a "holy war."
Photographs are being circulated of black crosses painted on mosque walls and on copies of the Quran, and of soldiers dumping their waste inside mosques. New stories appear frequently of raids on mosques and brutal treatment of Islamic clerics, leading many Iraqis to ask if the invasion and occupation was a war against Islam.
Many Iraqis now recall remarks by US President George W. Bush shortly after the events of Sep. 11, 2001 when he told reporters that "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while."
"Bush's tongue 'slipped' more than once when he spoke of 'fascist Islamists' and used other similar expressions that touched the very nerve of Muslims around the world," Sheikh Abdul Salam al-Kubayssi of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), a leading Sunni group, told IPS in Baghdad. "We wish they were just mere slips, but what is going on repeatedly makes one think of crusades over and over."
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Occupation forces claim that mosque raids are being conducted because holy places are being used by resistance fighters.
A leaflet distributed in Fallujah by US forces late November said mosques were being used by "insurgents" to conduct attacks against "Multinational Forces," and that this would lead to "taking proper procedures against those mosques."
The statement referred to daily sniper attacks against occupation forces in Fallujah in which many US soldiers have been killed.
Local people refute these claims made by coalition forces.
"Fighters never used mosques for attacking Americans because they realize the consequences and reactions from the military," a member of the local municipality council of Fallujah told IPS on condition of anonymity. "Nonetheless, US soldiers always targeted our mosques and their minarets."
During Operation Phantom Fury of November 2004, scores of mosques in Fallujah were damaged or destroyed completely. Fallujah is known as the city of mosques because it has so many.
Many of these are Sunni mosques. AMS leaders are now enemy number one for US occupation forces as well as the Shi'ite-dominated government. Through continuous arrests of its members and the raids against mosques all over the Sunni areas of the country, including their headquarters on the outskirts of Baghdad, the AMS has often expressed feelings of persecution.
On the other hand, the occupation forces have been supportive of clerics who took part in the political structure that the US coalition created in Iraq. These include Shi'ite clerics and political leaders like current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the Dawa Party. Maliki has called AMS leader Dr. Harith al-Dhari a "terrorist leader" and a murderer.
Many Sunnis who are more secular also feel persecuted by the occupation.
"I am not a follower of al-Dhari or any other leader," Prof. Malik al-Rawi of the National Institute for Scientific Research of Baghdad told IPS. "In fact most Sunnis do not literally follow any leader for religious reasons. Yet after we found Americans targeting our religious symbols, we had to stand together around the man who did not sell us to the occupation."
Dr. Rawi, avowedly a secular Sunni, told IPS that the number of Iraqis who believe the occupation is waging a "religious war" increased dramatically after the 2004 attacks on Fallujah.
"Those sieges, along with all the events that followed in Samarra, al-Qa'im, Haditha and now Siniya have led people to think of the crusades," he added. "Americans do hate us for some reason and we do not find any reason but religion."
It is not just Sunni Iraqis who claim that their mosques are not respected by occupation forces. The mostly Shi'ite city of Najaf was exposed to massive US military assaults during August 2004. Many attacks came dangerously close to the sacred Imam Ali shrine, damaging its outer walls.
Other US raids on Shi'ite mosques in Baghdad have infuriated Iraq's Shi'ite population.
Some Iraqi analysts say the perceived religious conflict seems to have expanded as the occupation has progressed.
"The world must be aware that this US administration is pushing the situation to the black hole of a new religious conflict by giving the green light to their soldiers to attack mosques and arrest clerics whenever they feel like it," Kassim Jabbar, an Iraqi political analyst from Baghdad University told IPS.
"Even people with the highest education standards are wondering why US leaders have not restricted attacks upon religious symbols in our country."
Ali al-Fadhily is our Baghdad correspondent. Dahr Jamail is our specialist writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering the Middle East for several years.
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