Marines Cast as 'Mongols' in Baghdad

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Iraqis protest outside al Khadim mosque following Friday prayers

Not that they necessarily knew it, but a Marine platoon stumbled into a potential hornet's nest at 1:30 on Friday in Baghdad, at the al Hanif al Naaman Mosque in the Adhimiya district. Adhimiya is a bastion of the capital's Sunni Muslim minority, whose members have traditionally dominated Iraq's ruling elite both before and during Saddam Hussein's regime. And had the Marines been able to read the banners in Arabic held aloft by worshipers, or understand the sermon of Sheikh Ahmad al Kuwaisi booming out over loudspeakers, they might have been impressed with the content — as well as afraid.

But it's unlikely that the 34 marines knew they were approaching a mosque, or that Friday was the holy day for Muslims, or that it might not be a good idea to walk into a street full of Sunni Muslims kneeling in front of a Mosque whose clock tower had already been damaged by an American missile. On the walls of the mosque stood young men holding banners proclaiming "One Iraq One People," "We Reject Foreign Control," "Sunnis are Shias and Shias are Sunnis; We are all One," "All the Believers are Brothers," and similar proclamations of national and Islamic unity.

The sermon that followed the prayers elaborated the nationalist sentiments on the banners. Baghdad had been occupied by the Mongols, Sheikh al Kuwaisi told the faithful, referring to the sacking of what was then the capital of the Muslim world in 1258. Now, new Mongols were occupying Baghdad and they were creating divisions between Sunnis and Shias. The Shias and Sunnis were one, however, and they should remain united and reject foreign control. They had all suffered together as one people under Saddam's rule. Saddam oppressed all Iraqis and then he abandoned them to suffer. There were no Sunnis or Shias, said the Sheikh. All Iraqis were Muslims and they had defended their country together from the Americans and British, as a united people. Al-Kuwaisi also thanked the Shia people of Basra for defending their country against the foreign invaders.

In a Muslim world where Sunnis have often referred to Shias as heretics, polytheists and apostates, Friday's sermon was a remarkable development. There were even Shias praying inside the Mosque.

And as the Sheikh neared his conclusion, the Marine patrol rounded a corner and walked right into hundreds of people praying on the street and listening to the sermon, even approaching the separate section for women. Dozens of men rose and put their shoes on, forming a virtual wall to block the armed Marines, who appeared unaware of the danger. The U.S. soldiers did not understand Arabic, but they did not need to — the enraged faces, the shouting and the fierce gesticulations were sufficient signal that they were not wanted. "Irjau!" "Go Back!" the demonstrators screamed, as they were restrained by a few cooler-headed men from within their ranks.

I ran to advise the marines that Friday prayers was not a good time to show up fully armed. They referred me to their lieutenant, who appeared oblivious to the public relations catastrophe he might be provoking, and merely responded, "That's why we've got the guns."

A nervous soldier asked me to go explain the situation to the bespectacled staff sergeant, who had been attempting to calm the situation by telling the demonstrators, who did not speak English, that the U.S. patrol meant no harm. He finally lost his temper when an Iraqi told him gently, "You must go."

"I have the weapons," the sergeant said. "You back off."

"Let's get the fuck out!" one marine shouted to another, as the tension increased. At that point, a shove, a tossed stone or a shot fired could have provoked a massacre and turned the city violently against the American occupation. But the marines retreated cautiously around the other corner, as the worshipers were held back by their own men. Women peered at the marines from behind cracked open doors and children waved to them and gave them a thumbs-up.

The incident at the mosque appeared to demonstrate what a more experienced colleague told me: "The Americans make great liberators but lousy occupiers. They combine the ignorance and arrogance of American youth with the blood-lust of soldiers fresh from battle." I asked marines if they had been given maps, books or briefings explaining the different neighborhoods and communities of Baghdad, and they said no. Had they been given such material, or even simply accompanied, like their counterparts in Bosnia, by a local translator, they might have avoided that moment of tension. Indeed, properly briefed, they might even appreciate the significance of the demonstration of nationalism and unity at the prayer service, as well as the potential hostility they may face as the "new Mongols."