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On edge, Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq try to talk it out

A meeting Saturday of Sunni and Shiite clerics revealed a possible piece of common ground: distrust of the US.

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In a side building at Saddam Hussein's last great monument to himself - the "Mother of All Battles Mosque" - built at a cost of $10 million with soaring minarets styled after missiles and Kalashnikovs to commemorate his survival of the 1991 Gulf War, a group of Shiite and Sunni clerics have gathered to fight one of Hussein's most divisive legacies.

With the threat of sectarian strife hanging over Iraq's transition, punctuated by mosque takeovers in the southern city of Basra, an explosion at a small Sunni mosque in Baghdad, and the press rife with talk about rivalry across Iraq's great sectarian divide, the imams want to head off potential conflict.

It's the sort of meeting that heralds one of the short-term successes of the US invasion. Hussein worked assiduously to divide Sunni, the national minority who benefited most from his rule, and Shiites, the majority sect who were ruthlessly suppressed during his reign.

A meeting like this in his time would have ended with arrests and executions.

But it is not a picture that yields uncomplicated good news. In two hours of speeches appealing to their common heritage as Muslims and the powerful concept of the ummah, the idea of a global Islamic community that arches across sectarian and ethnic differences, the comments that draw the most cheers from the 200-odd members of the audience are ones that focus on a Iraq as a nation forged in resistance to occupation.

"We will all stand now in the face of our enemies who seek to divide us,'' says Sheikh Hasan al-Baghdadi, a black- turbaned preacher from the Shiite holy city of Najaf. "The occupiers are creating the problem between Shiites and Sunni. It's the same old conspiracy, divide and conquer."

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