NAJAF, IRAQ -- Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Iraq, taking control of vital services and vying for a major say in the shape of Iraq's civilian government.
The upsurge in Islamic sentiment is especially strong among followers of the Shia sect, who make up 60 per cent of Iraq's population of 24 million and were long persecuted by the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, who was a member of the Sunni minority.
"I don't want democracy. I want an Islamic state," said Hassan Hameed, a 21-year-old pilgrim to Najaf, the most holy city for the Shiites. "I want Iraq to be ruled by sharia law."
Along with tens of thousands of other Shiite pilgrims, Mr. Hameed was in Najaf last week to mark the anniversary of Mohammed's death, walking 15 hours through the night from his home in Hilla, 80 kilometers to the north.
Shiite Muslims pray in the resting place of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, seen in background, in holy city of Najaf on Satuday May, 3, 2003. The world's 120 million Shiites regard Najaf - a center of scientific, literary and theological studies - as their third-holiest site, behind Mecca and Medina.(AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)
Like the hundreds of thousands who marched this month on another pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq's other great Shia holy city, they were doing it for the first time free of the harassment and threat of imprisonment that for years kept many of the faithful at home.
But Mr. Hameed and other pilgrims did not credit the United States for their newfound freedom and are anxious to see the U.S.-led forces leave Iraq. "I thank Allah, not the Americans," he said.
Curbside stalls in Najaf's teeming streets were doing a brisk trade in images of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, the respected Shiite leader who was killed in 1999, a death many have blamed on Mr. Hussein. The ayatollah has taken on iconic status among Shiites, with his image plastered on buses, cars and shops.
The United States has made it clear that it does not want a clone of Iran's theocracy in Iraq, and has been pushing for the establishment of a government that includes all the country's main religious, ethnic and political groups.
The Iranian government has rejected as "baseless" U.S. claims that Iranian-sponsored agents are trying to infiltrate Iraq and promote an Islamic state, but U.S. President George W. Bush has gone so far as to warn Iran to keep its hands off Iraq and "allow Iraq to develop into a stable and peaceful society."
While the negotiations on setting up a government drag on, religious fundamentalists are making huge strides. As Iraq continues to face general lawlessness and a collapse of government services, the mosques and the Hawza, the Najaf seminary that acts as the supreme Shia authority in Iraq, often are the only sources of stability and continuity.
At the Al-Mustansyria health clinic in Baghdad, the staff and the Hawza protected the building from looters and reopened it on April 12, three days after Mr. Hussein's regime collapsed.
Now six general practitioners, three dentists and a dozen nurses and other staff provide services for a flat fee of 250 dinars (about 20 cents) per visit. Drugs cost a flat fee of 100 dinars.
Although a picture of the late ayatollah hangs near the entrance, the modern, well-kept clinic has a policy of non-discrimination.
"We accept anyone," said director Sarmad Ahmed, a Shiite. "Why should I ask about religion? He is a patient."
"I volunteered to work here, and they accept me," said Dr. Omar Fawzi, a general practitioner and a Sunni.
The clinic's guard, who helped protect the building from looting, was adamant about the point. "We don't make any difference between Sunni, Shia, Christians and Kurds. No, no, no."
Yet there are other voices within the Shia community who are considerably less tolerant.
In a sermon on Friday, Murtada Sadr, son of the late ayatollah, called for the imposition of strict Islamic rules banning alcohol and said that all women should be forced to wear veils, including Christians.
Mr. Sadr, 31, does not have religious authority to interpret the Koran but is the most outspoken of the Shiites' leaders. He is playing a complex game of claiming not to seek political power, yet he insists on wielding vast influence over the shape of Iraq.
"We will support any government that the Iraqi people will elect freely and will provide . . . security to the people," said Qais al-Khazaaly, an aide to Mr. Sadr. "It's not a condition that there be an Islamic state."
Yet later in the same interview, Mr. al-Khazaaly said: "I think the right decision is to have an Islamic state because the Muslims constitute the majority of people in Iraq."
He warned the United States that if it tried to block the establishment of such a state, "it would lead to lots of trouble."
"I can't really define this trouble, but what I can say is that the Iraqi people are a revolutionary people."
Toby Dodge, a political scientist specializing in Iraq at Warwick University in Britain, said that the sudden rise in the Shiites' identity is natural after the years of repression under Mr. Hussein.
"The pressure valve has been let off," he said -- it is natural for Shiite leaders to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the regime. "Saddam killed off most of Iraqi civil society, so the only people with any ideological or organizational structure were the mullahs."
Yet Mr. Dodge said it would be a mistake to presume that this will necessarily lead to establishment of a theocratic Islamic state similar to that of Iran.
For one thing, Iraq's Shia society remains heterogeneous, and the young Mr. Sadr is little more than "a know-nothing thug" with a shallow support base, Mr. Dodge said.
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