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In the shadow of Hussein's mosque, parties blossom

A gargantuan, half-finished structure becomes an unlikely home base for groups vying for influence in postwar Iraq

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Not far from the Tigris River, the skeleton of Al Rahman mosque punctures the Baghdad skyline, towering over nearby luxury homes and serving as a potent symbol of Saddam Hussein's rule. Twenty stories high, with 64 domes, and set on some 100 acres, the mosque is at once awe-inspiring and grotesque.

Yet for a handful of Iraqi political parties whose offices encircle the mosque, the half-built structure is a daily reminder of the continuing influence of Saddam's legacy in Iraqi politics.

Four years ago, Mr. Hussein set out to create the largest mosque ever built - as big as two football fields. The Saddam Mosque, recently renamed, was to be the crowning achievement in his campaign to bolster his Islamic credentials.

Billions of dollars in the making, the mosque now rests half built, cranes still looming above the scaffolding, presenting its neighbors with a conundrum: You can destroy pictures and statues of Hussein, but you can never destroy a mosque.

The irony is not lost on the members of the political parties skirting the structure. In mid-April, US-backed Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress opened its headquarters on the northeast corner; Adnan Pachachi's Independent Democratic Party established itself along the southwestern corner in early May. Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim's Shiite SCIRI party opened a regional office in an abandoned house one block away; a few blocks in the other direction, the Kurdish Democratic Party opened a branch in an old office building.

Inside the mosque itself, the Shiite Hawza, a clerical organization, opened its doors just days after the regime fell, leading Friday prayers, running an Islamic school, and supporting political activities.

But the site is not necessarily an easy place to work. When Abbas Fathil, an employee of the INC, sets his sights on the gargantuan structure, he recalls the torture and punishment he once faced at the hands of Hussein's jailers. "This mosque is the very symbol of the hypocrisy and cruelty of Saddam," says Mr. Fathil, who escaped death when he was released in November in Hussein's unprecedented amnesty of Iraqi prisoners. People who have gone through the mosque's foundation have found hidden tunnels and ominous cavernous spaces, he notes. "He was trying to appear religious above ground, while underground he had prisons. What more is there to say?"

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