Iraqi Shiites welcome cooperation with Jews and Israel Israel

BAGHDAD, Iraq — For now at least, the highest Shiite imams in Iraq are practicing what they preached throughout three decades of oppression and assassination under Saddam Hussein — tolerance.

After he called on millions of Shiites to return loot plundered from the Baghdad National Museum, Sa'id Kamal Din al-Mukadas al-Ruweifi recently gave museum officials 22 Torah scrolls and manuscripts, along with dozens of other artifacts that had been stolen.

Ruweifi, a follower of the al-Hawza Supreme Clerical Council in Najaf and the arbiter of Islamic law for about half of Baghdad's Shiites, looked puzzled when asked in an interview why he returned the Torah scrolls.

The two purplish, horn-like smudges on his forehead, marks of a devout Muslim who prostrates himself in prayer five times a day, inched upward: "True Islam respects other people's belief in God. Muslims respect others, whether they be Christians or Jews, as long as they respect Islam."

His voice husky with age and sickness, Ruweifi said Jews once thrived in Iraq.

"We knew many of them. They were traders and lived and worked in the al-Jorjia district in Baghdad. We had nothing against them. In Iraq a person's religion does not matter too much to the people."

According to U.S. Marine Col. Mathew Bogdanos, head of a task force charged with cataloging and retrieving the stolen artifacts, the "clergy has been instrumental in helping us."

The Torahs were delivered in a "wooden chest with rivets that was about a yard wide, full of scrolls and manuscripts," he said.

Bogdanos' task force had distributed leaflets, put advertisements on the one radio station still playing and walked the streets to convince looters that the "no questions asked" policy "meant no questions asked," he said.

Little worked until leaders like Ruweifi stepped in.

The response "was tremendous," Bogdanos said. "They made our job a lot easier."

Ruweifi, swaddled in a black robe and bulky black turban, said that under Saddam, Iraq's Shiites endured suffering, assassination and deprivation. Imams that got too powerful were executed. Constant pressure by the regime may have contributed to the severe heart attack suffered by Ruweifi — an honorary title for a Shiite leader — which has left him with greatly reduced mobility.

The Shiites of Sadr City, a slum of more than a million people formerly known as Saddam City, routinely were rounded up by the paramilitary fedayeen groups and tortured, executed or forcefully conscripted.

During a tour through the lawless sector, where gunfire crackles day and night, one encounters dozens of men with crimson marks on their ears, legs, chests and backs, legacies of torture under the Saddam regime.

The ugly face of the district evinces years of poor sanitation, bare-bones infrastructure, nonexistent health care and minimal education. Saddam purposely left the district in poverty and filth to prevent a possible Shiite rebellion against him.

Shiite leaders now command the allegiance of as much as 60 percent of the population.

"All we want is a constitutional democracy that represents the population of Iraq," Ruweifi said, meaning they want a government that enshrines Shiite majority dominance.

Magnanimity, or at least caution, colors the rhetoric of moderate Shia loyal to the al-Hawza sect and its leader, Said Muhammed al-Sistani.

Preaching at a mosque last Friday, Qassen al-Tahi, a chief al-Hawza member, called on the thousands of Shiite faithful in attendance to follow the peaceful path of the prophet Mohammed. Instead of whipping the crowd into a fury, al-Tahi preached patience and tolerance.

"The Americans are civilized and admired in many respects," he said, advising followers to respect the Americans.

He also chastised the public for looting.

Not a word was spoken about a "Zionist plot" or about Israel. While Saddam used the Palestine question ceaselessly to win support across the Arab world, Israel seems to be of little importance to most ordinary Iraqis.

Especially in Sadr City, the Shiites seem wary of Palestinians here who glorified Saddam. According to reports, hundreds or thousands of Palestinians were kicked out of Iraq as soon as Baghdad fell.

"No," Ruweifi wheezed, "our duty to our people is to make them do good, to follow God's wishes, to stop the stealing and the lawlessness."

Part of this means returning the heritage of other religions, whose history is as long as anyone's here, Ruweifi said: "It is their country too."

The Jewish community in Iraq dates from the time of the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE.

The majority of the community made aliyah in the late 1940s and early 1950s after growing tensions between the Arab world and the new Jewish state led to pogroms and anti-Semitism.

Today, a few dozen elderly Jews remain in Baghdad.

Jews who fled Baghdad pogroms for Israel in the late 1940s and early 1950s should be welcomed back, Ruweifi said.

"If elections bring freedom and people want to come back that is their choice. They are our brothers, we must respect all the minorities here."