KARBALA, Iraq --
Abdel-Aziz al-Nasrawi was nervous. He sat on the edge of his chair and spoke in whispers. Occasionally, he stole a look at the American officers and their translators seated across the room to see if they were eavesdropping.
A 53-year-old lawyer who became deputy governor of this holy Shiite Muslim city last month, al-Nasrawi has a lot on his mind these days.
"The problems are immense," the silver-haired al-Nasrawi said with a hint of desperation.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Karbala has been viewed as an island of peace and stability in a country wracked by violence and social turmoil. But there are signs the peace in this city of 500,000 could soon unravel.
People walk into the Imam Hussein mosque through one of the gates in the holy Shiite Muslim city of Karbala, about 110 kms (62 miles) south of Baghdad on Saturday July 12, 2003. An old rivalry between two Shiite groups is rapidly woresening as both seek to control Karbala's holy sites and gain leverage over its 500,000 inhabitants. The deputy governor of Karbala Abdel-Aziz Al-Nasrawi said problems in Karbala are compounded because the Americans don't appreciate the city's special cultural and religiousnature. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
U.S. military commanders, al-Nasrawi confided, are not flexible enough and misinterpret simple acts of piety as religious extremism. The authority of the city's 1,400-strong police force is constantly challenged by Karbala's people, many of whom are armed.
Beyond those problems, he said, a rift between two rival Shiite Muslim groups has deepened, filling the city with tension that could turn into violence. Drugs and pornography are spreading, he complained, and the economy hasn't recovered from the war.
Last week, U.S. forces in Karbala, 62 miles south of Baghdad, were attacked for the first time since they captured the city in April. There were no casualties and local U.S. military commander Marine Lt. Col. Matthew Lopez dismissed it as an "isolated incident."
But the symbolic significance of the incident cannot be overlooked.
Young men said the only reason they haven't attacked American forces is the lack of a fatwa, or edict, for holy war issued by a top Shiite cleric.
"The circumstances are not right to call for jihad," said Sheik Abdel-Mahdi Abdel-Ameer, the Karbala representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, a reclusive cleric based in the holy city of Najaf who leads one of the two rival Shiite groups. "At present, we are using peaceful means to demand a constitution and a representative government. But it will be a different story if those demands are not met."
Leaders of the rival al-Sadr group -- followers of a senior cleric assassinated in 1999 by Saddam Hussein -- are more extreme. They say the Americans corrupt local young people by handing out pornography and entertain prostitutes.
Their leader in Karbala, sheik Khaled al-Kazimi, told a visitor of the demands he brought three times to a local U.S. commander. He boasted of "our people" who monitor U.S. bases in the area to see whether "immoral things" take place.
"I told him (the commander) to withdraw his forces to a point 15 kilometers (9 miles) out of Karbala and leave us in charge of security here. I said I will personally take the blame if things go wrong," he said. Three other clerics and a relative listened attentively.
"These Americans are technologically advanced, but they are not clever," he said.
Al-Kazimi could not recall the name of the commander he met. Lopez said it was not him and laughed when told of the demand.
Al-Nasrawi said problems in Karbala are compounded because the Americans don't appreciate the city's special cultural and religious nature. That misunderstanding led to the Americans' disbanding a volunteer, 500-strong police force set up by the clerics the previous month.
The volunteers, who prevented the kind of widespread looting that plagued Baghdad in April and May, showed religious zeal in policing the city, admonishing women who did not adhere to Islam's strict dress code in public and raiding places where they suspected pornographic material or drugs were being sold.
"They think it's Hollywood, but it isn't," al-Nasrawi said. "This is a holy city and must be treated as such."
Lopez, a Chicago native, disputes the claim that his more than 11,000 men are insensitive, saying his troops don't go within 200 yards of the city's shrines. "We are not cultural experts, but we have experts who are educating us."
Pilgrims crowd Karbala's shrines, praying, offering supplications to their revered saints or reading from the Quran. Outside, merchants sell worry beads, books, scarves embroidered with religious phrases or pictures of clerics.
Rocks from Karbala are sold for faithful to rest their foreheads on during prayer. Families of poor pilgrims, unable to afford a hotel, squat for days on straw mats spread on sidewalks, eating food brought from home.
Such harmonious scenes of piety, however, conceal the dangerous rift between the two Shiite factions. The rivalry, centered on delicate theological issues and the control of shrines, is played out in most of Iraq's Shiite-dominated areas.
But Karbala's religious stature gives the dispute more significance.
A deal between the two sides to take turns leading Friday prayers in Imam al-Hussein mosque, the city's holiest shrine, collapsed earlier this month when al-Sadr said only its imams had the right to lead the prayers.
Rival supporters came to blows July 4 inside the shrine and the al-Sadr group later warned worshippers in fliers plastered on the mosque's main gate that God would not accept the prayers if they were made under an imam from al-Sistani.
"No one should have a monopoly over the Friday prayers," counters Abdel-Ameer, of al-Sistani. "God asks all Muslims to perform it."
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press