BAGHDAD, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- Considering the oppression inflicted on Iraq's Shiite population by Saddam Hussein's regime it came as little surprise the U.S. occupation found the most support from the country's largest religious group.
And while most attacks on U.S. troops have come from Sunni Muslims either affiliated with the previous regime or fundamentalist Islam, there are signs that some previously vocal Shiite critics of the occupation -- namely 32-year-old Moqtada al-Sadr, a cleric from a prominent family that commands a large following -- could be further radicalizing their stance.
An example is the ongoing drama of the al-Bayaa Mosque, located in the Baghdad neighborhood of the same name. U.S. troops have faced large demonstrations here almost everyday for the past week, culminating in Monday's detention of the local imams, Sheikh Jalil al-Shemari and Sheikh Moaed al-Khazraji, by American troops.
Both men -- aligned with al-Sadr's movement -- have been accused of storing guns and explosives at the mosque in addition to making public statements threatening violence against U.S. troops for a series of raids at the building.
On Oct. 1, U.S. troops raided the mosque, leading to a three-way gunfight among occupation forces, armed men in the mosque and local Iraqi police, who were shooting at the Americans, according to journalists at the scene. At the next Friday noon prayer, al-Khazraji warned American troops during his sermon that the initial raid was an offense that would be dealt with violently if there was no apology.
"We demand an apology from the American officer in charge of this raid," he told the faithful, kneeling outdoors before the doors of the mosque.
"It is forbidden for them to enter a mosque in this manner and we will not accept being offended," he added.
"No, no, no to America," the crowd responded.
On Monday night, according to witnesses interviewed by United Press International, the American forces invited both clerics and other local elders to a meeting. Their ensuing arrest and closure of the mosque was not exactly an "apology."
The Americans say the mosque had guns and explosives, while locals say U.S. troops planted them in order to frame the clerics. Neither claim could be verified.
On Tuesday, more than 500 protesters faced off with U.S. troops and helicopters. The demonstration -- while peaceful -- was filled with demands for the release of the two men and a specific threat if they were not.
"Either release our man or we rebel. Choose ..." read one sign in English. Chants from the crowd included demands for a religious ruling, or fatwa, that would declare war on the American occupation.
Of maybe even-greater concern to the American occupation authorities is the burgeoning relationship between al-Sadr and the well-respected Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Kubaisi, a fundamentalist who heads the National Patriotic Movement.
Al-Kubaisi has joined al-Sadr in demanding a withdrawal of American forces, and like al-Sadr has yet to call for violence. But both men have been actively reaching out to each other's sectarian flocks and seem to have aligned as a religious force and as critics of the occupation.
By bridging the gap between Shiite and Sunni -- two groups with little history of cooperation and a tendency toward bloody fighting going back more than 1,300 years -- these two clerics pose a threat to the occupation should they instruct their followers, who number in the millions in Baghdad alone, to take up violence. But so far each seems content to consolidate power and criticize from the non-violent fringes.
One indication of their cooperation has been signs in the mosques aligned with both men that read, "No Sunni. No Shiite. Only Islam."
Certainly, these signs reflect an uncommon sentiment.