Mosque No. 5-833 of Sector 3 was known throughout the neighborhood as the Saddam Hussein Mosque, a name favored by the Sunni Arab imam. Now, to the Shiite militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles who expelled that cleric and stand guard, the building is called the Imam Ali Mosque, after the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad whose murder catalyzed the epochal Sunni-Shiite split.
The tale of this mosque shows how the Mahdi Army, the thousands-strong grass-roots militia that answers to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, has tapped into the entrenched feelings of grievance common among the Shiite majority in Iraq. The emotions are rooted in a history that began with the assassination of Imam Ali in 661, continued through centuries of Sunni domination and now threatens to tip Iraq into a vortex of sectarian bloodletting.
"I'm so grateful to the Mahdi Army because they retook the mosque and returned it to me," said Saheb Awda, 75, a soft-spoken Shiite and former lawyer who contends that Sunni officials under Mr. Hussein stripped the mosque from him.
The Mahdi Army has transformed the mosque into a fortress. There is a police station next door, but the officers do not approach.
A black banner draped across the outer wall has a phrase attributed to Hussein, the son of Imam Ali, who was killed with dozens of followers by a Sunni army in the southern desert in 680. "They took the gown and the turban from me, and they kept me thirsty," the saying goes. That lament has echoes in the way the Mahdi militiamen describe the plight of Shiites in modern-day Iraq.
...In 1980, after a decade of building, it was completed. But a government official overseeing mosques abruptly seized it and gave it to Sunni worshipers, he said. After the toppling of Mr. Hussein, Mr. Awda and some neighbors asked the Sunni Endowment, the organization in charge of Sunni mosques, to return the building. Mr. Awda took the case to court, and a judge ruled in his favor, according to copies of legal documents. But the Sunni imam, Sheik Yasseen al-Nasiri, refused to leave. And Mr. Awda was threatened: someone tossed grenades over the outer wall of his home, he said.
In Baghdad and the south, Sadrists rallied mobs to lay siege to Sunni mosques. Sheik Tamimi said he led hundreds of followers to this mosque. A Sunni Arab neighbor, Abu Hussein, 46, said black-clad men pulled up in 10 cars, blocking off the roads leading to the building.
Mr. Awda hobbled over with a cane. "I cried when I walked in," he said. "I hadn't set foot in the mosque in 26 years."
Abu Hussein, the Sunni neighbor, said he and other Sunnis had stopped attending prayers here, and fear they have lost the mosque for good.
"They're really very dangerous people," he said of the Mahdi Army. "They raid homes intending to kill. They won't hesitate to kill."
This wouldn't go over with the Temple Mount, I fear. I mean only in 638 when the invading Muslim Arab armies conquered Jerusalem and began altering the former site of two great Jewish Temples would such violent and illegal beahvior be tolerated.
But in the 21 century?