With Isam Rashid
BAGHDAD – The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni organization that was created in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, was again targeted by the United States military last Sunday. The raid on its mosque served only to alienate Sunnis further.
The Association of Muslim Scholars, now considered the highest Sunni authority in Iraq, has been working to support those who have lost their families, as well as the unemployed. It is also a strong critic of the United States occupation.
Its stand has provoked several raids by the U.S. Army and continuing conflict with the Shia-dominated interim government.
This most recent raid appears to have been related to the kidnapping of American journalist Jill Carroll. No one has yet claimed responsibility for her abduction.
The Association of Muslim Scholars has been accused of links with resistance groups in the past, but there is no known connection between the organization and such groups, or with the abduction of Jill Carroll. The U.S. forces apparently acted on a tip-off from one Iraqi.
The U.S. forces raided the Umm al-Qura Mosque in the early morning, just two days before Eid al-Adha, which concludes the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The Association offices are based at this mosque.
"At 3:30 a.m., the U.S. troops and the Iraqi army raided the mosque," Akram Ahmed, a guard at the mosque, told IPS. "Some of the U.S. troops came down from helicopters. They arrested seven guards and Sheik Yunis al-Ugaidi." The sheik is a Sunni religious leader.
U.S. troops were evidently looking for Jill Carroll. "They were looking for secret places in the mosque, and they asked about the American journalist," Ahmed said. "But they didn’t find anything about that."
It is difficult to understand why the United States would single out the Association of Muslim Scholars as an initial target in the investigation of Jill Carroll’s abduction. The organization has condemned the taking of hostages in Iraq. It has opposed the political process under the occupation, but has continued to call for peace.
The Association was instrumental in brokering the first cease-fire in Fallujah.
Through the raid, the offices of the Association at the mosque were ransacked. Witnesses said they found graffiti by way of stylized crosses drawn with thick markers.
"The United States troops drew the cross markings inside the mosque, they destroyed everything in the mosque, and took the computers, and the guns which belonged to the guards," Ahmed said.
Several other guards at the mosque corroborated what Akram Ahmed said, but said they wished to remain anonymous.
The Association said in a statement after the attack that the United States was responsible for desecrating the mosque and stealing files with information on their members.
Spokesperson for the U.S. military Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said the raid was carried out at night in order to "minimize the impact on worshippers and the surrounding neighborhood." He denied that the military desecrated the mosque.
Sunnis have been outraged by the raid. Hundreds gathered at the gardens of the mosque in a demonstration Tuesday. "The attack on the Umm al-Qura mosque is an attack on Muslims and Islam," said one banner.
In such a situation, it is difficult to see how claims that a united government that would include Sunnis is close.
In a sermon before the demonstration, political leader Dr. Harith al-Ubaidi said the occupation was responsible for "every crime and the death of every citizen in Iraq. If the occupier would leave, Iraqis would live as brothers."