Sheikh Mahdi Ahmed al-Sumaidi was detained in Abu Ghraib prison early this year after a weapons cache was found in his Ibn Taymiyyah mosque. Since released, his anti-US fervor is undiminished. "Neither the occupation forces nor the government they installed is acceptable,'' he says. "The legitimate power is the resistance."
Even so, he is grateful for the US invasion. "God uses many tools,'' he says. "America's brutality has caused many to understand that Islam is the answer to our problems. The only solution is Islamic government."
Sheikh Sumaidi is one of a cadre of Sunni preachers whose star has risen sharply in the past year. No longer constrained or exiled by a repressive regime, they are preaching jihad at key mosques and pushing to make Iraq an Islamic state.
They are still on the fringes of mainstream Sunni practice here. But amid almost daily firefights in the Sunni Triangle, these radical preachers are emerging as the principal Sunni rallying point.
"The Islamists are growing up very quickly among the frustrated and disadvantaged,'' says Sadoun al-Dulame, who runs the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies in Baghdad. "All the violence is allowing extremists to mobilize and try to monopolize political space."
The preachers' opponents call them Wahhabis, after the dominant religious ideology of Saudi Arabia. But many prefer to refer themselves as salafy, which emphasizes their desire to return the Islamic world to the practices that prevailed at the time of Mohammad, which they see as a golden age. While the US project was to mold a secular Iraq friendly to the West, the salafys' religious beliefs are not far from Al Qaeda's.
Now, they're playing an increasingly visible political role. When hostages are taken, diplomats quietly contact them, hoping they can secure their release. When interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi wants to negotiate with insurgents in the war-torn town of Fallujah, now in the hands of Sunni jihadis, he goes through their mosques. And increasingly, when young Iraqi Sunnis seek guidance in dealing with a dislocating and fraught time in their lives, they turn to these mosques.
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