Baghdad's most powerful Shia cleric warned yesterday that he would use a "hand of iron" to impose an extreme vision of Islam that could seriously challenge America's secular ambitions for Iraq.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Fartousi, a youthful hardliner, said he would enforce a new fatwa that bans alcohol, commands women to wear veils and orders cinemas to close.
The sheikh appears to have considerable popular support in the vast, impoverished Shia district in eastern Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City, where his supporters stepped in swiftly to fill the power vacuum after the war.
An Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim pushes cheering crowds away April 22, 2003, as he holds up a photograph of his leader, cleric Muhammad al-Fartousi, while he makes way for a car carrying Fartousi. REUTERS/Petr Josek
Sheikh Fartousi, 31, admitted having up to 1,000 armed, former soldiers under his control, several of whom were guarding his office yesterday at the small al-Hekma mosque. While US troops continue to patrol most of Baghdad, none was in evidence in the Shia district yesterday.
On Friday the sheikh issued his fatwa, ordering his laws to be in place by the end of this week. Several alcohol factories were attacked hours later.
Yesterday Sheikh Fartousi said Baghdad's sizeable Christian population should also follow his commands. "Our fatwa is for all the people. Alcohol is banned under every religion."
A committee from the mosque would be sent to the house of any who refused to obey. "It should be a hand of iron to handle this matter. We will send these people to the Islamic courts."
His words will not be welcomed by all Iraqis. The country is one of the more secular countries in the Arab world. In Baghdad, alcohol is readily available and women often walk unveiled in the streets, study freely at universities and, in the past, were able to find work.
Saddam Hussein's crude attempts to Islamize the country in the last decade were built on a fragile foundation based on crushing Shia opposition and building himself monumental mosques.
Sheikh Fartousi was quick to criticize the US military for its handling of Iraq since the fall of the regime. "They haven't done anything. At the hospitals, it is our doctors running things ... The Americans should do what they promised and give authority back to the Iraqi people."
Although a relatively young cleric, Sheikh Fartousi is a leading figure in the al-Sadr movement, based around the followers of Imam Mohammed al-Sadr, a senior Shia cleric who was executed by Saddam in 1999. It is one of several Shia factions vying for power in the new Iraq, though its influence is evident in the decision to rename the Shia suburb of eastern Baghdad Sadr City.
Sheikh Fartousi said he was sent to Baghdad immediately after the war by the Hawza, the Shias' intellectual center in the holy city of Najaf. He had worked for the clerics there, supervising Islamic schools.
It appears last Friday's fatwa was not officially approved by the Hawza
The sheikh said he had no political ambitions and did not envisage an Iranian-style theocracy for Iraq.
But he added: "Without proper leadership, our people will be in a very dangerous situation."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003