Iran says Saudi Arabia will 'pay a high price' for execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr

ABC News

Iran has warned Saudi Arabia it will pay "a high price" for executing prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Key points:
•    Saudi Arabia executes 47 "terrorists", mostly suspected Al Qaeda members
•    Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of aiding extremists and silencing critics by execution
•    Nimr al-Nimr's brother calls for calm
•    Reports of police clashing with Sheikh Nimr supporters in Bahrain

Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry said 47 people, mostly suspected Al Qaeda members but also Sheikh Nimr, were executed after being convicted of adopting the radical "takfiri" ideology, joining "terrorist organisations" and implementing various "criminal plots".

The conservative Islamic kingdom, which usually executes people by public beheading, detained thousands of militant Islamists after a series of Al Qaeda attacks from 2003 to 2006 that killed hundreds, and has convicted hundreds of them.

However, it also detained hundreds of members of its Shiite minority after protests from 2011 to 2013, during which several policemen were killed in shooting and petrol bomb attacks.

Sheikh Nimr, a 56-year-old cleric, was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east, where the Shiite minority complains of marginalisation.

The list of those killed does not include Sheikh Nimr's nephew, Ali al-Nimr, who was 17 when he was arrested following the protests.

The Interior Ministry statement began with Koranic verses justifying the use of execution and state television showed footage of the aftermath of Al Qaeda attacks in the last decade.

We hope that any reactions would be confined to a peaceful framework. No-one should have any reaction outside this peaceful framework. Enough bloodshed.

Mohammed al-Nimr

Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh appeared on television soon after to describe the executions as just.

The execution has angered Saudi Arabia's main regional rival, Shiite Iran, with the country's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari threatening retaliation.

"The Saudi Government supports terrorist movements and extremists, but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution ... the Saudi Government will pay a high price for following these policies," Mr Ansari said.

The comments came after prominent Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami — who has close links to Iran's ruling establishment — denounced the execution and predicted the repercussions would bring down the Saudi ruling family.

"I have no doubt that this pure blood will stain the collar of the House of Saud and wipe them from the pages of history," Ayatollah Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts and a Friday prayer leader, told the Mehr news agency.

"The crime of executing Sheikh Nimr is part of a criminal pattern by this treacherous family... the Islamic world is expected to cry out and denounce this infamous regime as much as it can."

Iraq's former prime minister and a prominent politician with ties to Iran, Nuri al-Maliki, said the execution will mark the end of Saudi Arabia's government.

"We strongly condemn these detestable sectarian practices and affirm that the crime of executing Sheikh al-Nimr will topple the Saudi regime as the crime of executing the martyr (Mohammed Baqir) al-Sadr did to Saddam (Hussein)," said Mr Maliki, referring to another prominent Shiite cleric killed in 1980.

Family calls for calm amid reports of violence in Bahrain

Sheikh Nimr's brother Mohammed al-Nimr said the family was shocked by the execution but hoped any reaction would be peaceful.

"Sheikh Nimr enjoyed high esteem in his community and within Muslim society in general and no doubt there will be reaction," he said.

"We hope that any reactions would be confined to a peaceful framework. No-one should have any reaction outside this peaceful framework. Enough bloodshed."

Seminary students marched through the Iranian holy city of Qom to protest against the execution of Sheikh Nimr, the Iranian Mehr news agency said hours after news of the execution was released.

Earlier Bahrain police fired tear gas at several dozen people holding pictures of the cleric gathered to protest against his death in a village west of the capital, an eyewitness said.

Lebanon's Supreme Islamic Shiite Council also condemned Sheikh Nimr's execution, saying it was a "grave mistake".

"The execution of Sheikh Nimr was an execution of reason, moderation and dialogue," the council's vice president Sheikh Abdel Amir Qabalan said in a statement.

Those executed include an Egyptian and a Chadian. The rest are all Saudis.

The executions are Saudi Arabia's first in 2016. At least 157 people were put to death last year, a large increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.

Islam's sectarian divide has turned from mistrust to bitter violence

My childhood ignorance of differing Shia and Sunni prayer customs once caused humiliation where today it might risk death
Nushin Arbabzadah, Friday 12 October 2012

In the Kabul of the 1980s, my teacher asked an apparently harmless question: "Which one of you knows how to pray and can demonstrate it to the class?" I raised my hand before anyone else and was soon marching towards the front of the classroom. I put my headscarf in order and made sure my arms were hanging down straight on either side of my body and that my hands were open. This gesture, arms down and hands open, was the first thing I had been taught about praying. There was emphasis during the instruction that the arms be down and the hands open so that it is clear that you have nothing to hide from God.

I remembered this point of caution and followed it. But just then, when I started to say "in the name of Allah", there was turmoil in the classroom. Horrified shrieks turned the silent afternoon into a hysterical cacophony. "What you are doing is wrong!", the girls screeched. Some of them were standing up in protest. I shot back, "How can it be wrong when this is how my grandma prays?"

I had appealed to the taboo that no young girl ever had the right to contradict an old woman. But the taboo failed and if anything, the screaming became louder. This time it was about my arms. "Quick, hold your arms folded over your chest!"

My teacher used a typically Afghan method of problem solving. Without a word, she sent me back to my seat and turned to an eager shouter. "Are you a Sunni?" The girl nodded. "Hanafi?" Again, there was a nod. The teacher took a breath and started the act anew. This time around, everyone was happy – the girl held her arms folded over her chest. The theological disaster, innocently personified by me, soon disappeared as if by magic and order was restored in the universe. In Afghan Sufi tales, such scenarios typically end with: "And the believers shed tears of joy for a catastrophe was prevented and no one was harmed in the process."

I had not intended to traumatise my Sunni classmates. After all, the mystery of folded versus straight arms had never been explained to me. Nothing was explained in Afghan society. Everything was a given. We were all-knowing in our ignorance.

Later I learned that the folded arms had to do with Shia paranoia about Sunnis. Hardcore Shia assumed that Sunnis held their arms over their chests to secretly pray to an imaginary idol. In other words, in such people's suspicion, Sunnis were assumed to be crypto-idol worshippers, carrying on with the old, pre-Islamic faith while pretending to be Muslims. I realised that back in Kabul we had all been victims of an inherited inter-Muslim historical conflict, complete with the terror of the straight arms and the hallucination of imaginary idols.

The Shia faith that I knew was contemplative and melancholic, with a taste for philosophy, classical poetry and silent suffering. It somewhat resembled Catholicism but without the Catholics' glitter, gold and candles. Black, the colour of mourning, was the favourite shade. Only the Messiah could lift the mood and he, alas, was yet to come.

By contrast to this passive suffering, the active militant Shia notorious today was historically new and directly linked to Ayatollah Khomeini's politics. Like all other regional transformations, this change, too, spilled over the borders into Afghanistan, via immigrants exposed to political Shiism in Iran.

In 2001, when the Taliban's monopoly over faith was lifted, Afghan Shia returned, armed with a new self-confidence gained in Qom, Tehran and Mashhad. They started to "out" themselves, doing public mourning marches and adding the stamp of their distinct identity on the diverse mosaic of the post-Taliban society.

But their temerity ended in tragedy in 2011, with the first violent sectarian attack in Kabul. The problem that my teacher had made disappear as if by magic had returned full force, complete with 55 deaths in a suicide attack. Young Afghan photographer Massoud Hossaini captured its essence in a shot of a screaming girl surrounded by corpses. It was Karbala all over again, only this time in Kabul itself.

Hossaini won the Pulitzer prize for news photography and was quoted as saying: "I was born in a wrong place, Afghanistan, grew up in a wrong place, Iran, [and am] living in a wrong place, Kabul." His sense of alienation resonated with me. After all, all our wars had their origins elsewhere, in faraway places and long ago pasts. We were trapped in the Muslim history of unresolved conflicts – a host of superstitions and paranoia that was handed down to us as if they were our own. If I got away with it, with humiliation in front of my classroom, those who came after me paid with their lives.

Muslims Killing Muslims in the Name of Jihad

By Norman Berdichevsky
June 02, 2010
American Thinker

A few days ago, one of the most violent incidents involving the slaughter of innocent civilians took place in Lahore and several kilometers away in Garhi Shahu, Pakistan. There has been essentially no media interest, such as on-the-spot coverage or interviews with survivors. The victims were all Ahmadis, a "deviant" sect within Islam. Ahmadis comprise the sect that is distinguished as being the most peaceful; they have always lived in peace with their neighbors, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

The Ahmadis were attacked by those "mainstream" Muslims who are sympathizers of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan. These Muslims attacked the two Ahmadi mosques packed with hundreds of worshipers. At least eighty people were killed. The assaults in Lahore were carried out by at least seven men, including three suicide bombers. Some of the attackers acted as snipers from an adjacent mosque to kill their fellow Muslims.

Ahmadis are reviled as heretics by mainstream Muslims for their belief that their sect's founder was a savior foretold by the Quran, Islam's holy book. The group has experienced years of state-sanctioned discrimination and occasional attacks in Pakistan, but never before in such a large and coordinated fashion.

Not one reputable, representative, acknowledged Muslim religious leader anywhere has seen fit so far to issue a condemnation of the attack. Not one media commentary anywhere (except in Israel) saw fit to mention that the only place within the Middle East where Ahmadis live in peace and harmony with their neighbors and enjoy full civil and religious rights is Israel.

The Kababir neighborhood in Haifa was established in 1928. The neighborhood's first mosque on Mount Carmel was built in 1931, and a larger grand mosque was built in the 1970s. The grand mosque has two white minarets standing one hundred feet tall. They dominate the low-rise skyline of the residential neighborhoods on the ridges nearby. The mosque is subsidized entirely by the members of the local Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

As noted authority Bernard Lewis has so cogently argued, although a majority of Muslims at any given time may not be motivated by considerations of jihad, the phrase "Islamic terrorism" is apt, because Islam has had an essentially political character ... from its very foundation ... to the present day. An intimate association between religion and politics, between power and cult, marks a principal distinction between Islam and other religions. ... In traditional Islam and therefore also in resurgent fundamentalist Islam, God is the sole source of sovereignty. God is the head of the state. The state is God's state. The "army is God's army. The treasury is God's treasury, and the enemy, of course, is God's enemy."

Jihad is directed not "just" against the unbelievers (the kaffirs, i.e., non-Mulsims), but all those who have "deviated" -- the Shi'ites, the  Alawites, the Ahmadis, the Druze, Bahais, Yazidis, etc. It is holy war by armed resistance to all those who do not accept Muhammad's message as interpreted by the sacred traditions hallowed by all the schools of Sunni jurisprudence across fourteen hundred years of history. But for our president and Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, there is the unshakable but blind, deaf, and dumb conviction that as they interpret it, Islam is a peaceful and noble religion that has been distorted by a "tiny minority," and jihad means a peaceful striving with oneself to overcome evil tendencies, notwithstanding the facts of:

1. The eight-year-long war between Iraq and Iran resulting in almost a million killed.

2. The First Gulf War; Invasion of Kuwait (Aug. 1990-Feb.1991), Operation Desert Storm, the Second Gulf War, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

3. Massive violence between Muslims and Hindus in India following partition and three India-Pakistan wars, terrorism in Kashmir and India resulting in several million killed and at least fifteen million people displaced.

4. Pakistan-Bangladesh conflict, 1971 (following civil war and secession). This war saw the highest number of casualties in any of the India-Pakistan conflicts. It is believed that from one to three million Bangladeshis were killed as a result of this war. Very little media coverage.

5. Ongoing Yemeni and Somali Civil Wars. Thousands killed. No media coverage.

6. Inter-sectarian Muslim violence between Shias and Sunnis in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

7. Border disputes between Syria and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

8. Jordan's crackdown on "Black September," 1970. PLO crushed by Jordanian Legion under command of King Hussein (at least 25,000 killed).

9. Syria's suppression of the Muslim Brothers and opponents of the Assad regime; destruction of the city of Hama (at least 20,000 killed) to wipe out Muslim Brotherhood. Media barred from entering the city. Uprising in Hama by Muslim Brotherhood crushed by Assad regime in Syria Feb. 1982.

10. Al-Qaeda and Taliban violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

11. Inter-Palestinian factionalism in Gaza; dozens killed.

12. Decade-long mass violence between Muslim religious extremists (Salafist movement) and Algerian government beginning in 1991 estimated to have cost between 150,000 and 200,000 lives.

13. Sixteen-year-long civil war in Lebanon. The war lasted from 1975 to 1990 and resulted in an estimated 130,000 to 250,000 civilian fatalities. Another one million people (one-third of the population) were wounded, half of whom were left with lifetime disabilities.

14. Iraqi, Iranian, and Turkish suppression of Kurdish autonomy; approximately 180,000 Kurds killed, mostly civilians in Iraq, by Saddam Hussein's forces via poison gas attacks.

15. Muslim terror against civilians in Chechnya, and additional hundreds killed in Moscow and other Russian cities including children at primary school. Russia's two biggest terrorist attacks both came from Muslim groups. The Chechnyan separatist "Special Purpose Islamic Regiment" took an estimated 850 people hostage in Moscow in October 2002 at a theater. At least 129 hostages died during the rescue, all but one killed by the chemicals used to subdue the attackers.

In the September 2004, 1,200 schoolchildren and adults were taken hostage at a secondary school in Beslan, North Ossetia-Alania, which was overrun by an Islamic terror group. About 500 people, including 186 children, died in the attempt to free the hostages. According to the only surviving attacker, Nur-Pashi Kulayev, the choice of a school and the targeting of mothers and young children by the attackers was carried out in order to generate the maximum outrage possible and ignite a wider war in the Caucasus with the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic Emirate across the whole of the North Caucasus.

16. Muslim secessionist activity and terrorism in the Philippines (with almost monthly reports by American media that do not mention the words "Muslim" or "jihad").

17. Darfur in the Sudan; genocidal attacks against non-Muslim Black Sudanese. On July 13, 2008, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court filed ten charges of war crimes against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, charges that included three counts of genocide, five crimes against humanity, and two of murder. The ICC's prosecutors have claimed that al-Bashir "masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part" three tribal groups in Darfur because of their ethnicity.

18. Muslim grievances and violence in Thailand.

19. Terrorist activity against the Han Chinese in Western China. More than a hundred fatalities.

20. Division of Cyprus to satisfy Turkish Muslim minority.

21. Muslim unrest and violence against Christians in Nigeria and Ghana; several thousand killed. No media interest.

22. Muslim terrorist attacks against the U.S. in New York and Washington. Almost 3,000 civilians killed.

23. Terrorist attacks throughout Europe -- London Underground, Atocha Train Station in Madrid; in Africa at American embassy in Kenya; in Bali nightclub where most victims were Australian tourists; foiled attempts in the U.S. and elsewhere.

24. Jihadi-inspired sniper and terror attacks by deranged lone Muslims in the United States against military bases (Ft. Hood), synagogues, and airports, and at Times Square.

25. Continued terrorist attacks against the State of Israel and Jews throughout the world.

26.Widespread piracy on a scale not seen for 150 years along the Somali coast of East Africa preying upon international shipping.

27. Indonesian Muslim suppression of East Timor population's (98%) desire for independence. Tens of thousands of civilians killed or died from malnutrition, imprisonment (1974-1998).

28. Continued civil war in West Sahara between the Polisario Movement and Moroccan authorities , low-level guerrilla attacks and hundreds of thousands of displaced refuges.

In the above-mentioned conflicts, wars, massacres, and atrocities, the primary and majority of victims have been Muslims killed by other Muslims in the name of Islam and "jihad." Where Muslims have been at risk of displacement and under attack in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Kuwait, their rescue was made possible only by the efforts of the United States.


50 dead as Baghdad bombings stoke fears of warfare

April 6, 2010

BAGHDAD — Bombs ripped through apartment buildings and a market in mostly Shiite areas of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing 50 people in postelection bloodshed that threatens to rekindle sectarian warfare that nearly destroyed the country three years ago.

The attacks appeared to be an attempt by al-Qaida in Iraq or other extremists to exploit a power vacuum during what promises to be lengthy negotiations to form a new government. About 120 people have been killed in and around the capital over the past five days — some of the most brutal strikes on civilians in months.

For two terrifying hours on a warm, sunny Tuesday morning, at least seven bombs rocked a broad swath of Baghdad. In a new tactic, several bombs were planted inside empty apartments after renters offered high prices for the properties, the government said.

The explosions reduced one building to rubble, knocked out windows and doors and ripped off facades. People rushed to the blast sites, digging through the rubble with their hands to find loved ones.

"Cars began to collide with one another in the street," said Ali Hussein, a 22-year-old college student who was riding the bus to school when one of the bombs went off. "We saw a cloud of fire and black smoke."

With militants singling out entire families of both Muslim sects for slaughter, the recent violence is reminiscent of the far more widespread fighting that tore Iraq apart from 2005 to 2007 and prompted the United States to send tens of thousands more troops to this country.

U.S. officials sought to downplay the possibility that Iraq is sliding toward major sectarian fighting and insisted there were no plans to slow the withdrawal of American troops.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, does not believe the violence threatens the ability of the U.S. military to draw down its forces this year.

The U.S. military plans to reduce troop levels from 90,000 to 50,000 by Aug. 31, when it will end combat operations. As part of an agreement with Iraq, the U.S. will withdraw all forces by the end of 2011.

"We're obviously concerned but we don't see the parallels with what happened a few years ago," U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Frayne said. "We don't see a sectarian war breaking out again."

While there was no claim of responsibility, the latest spike in attacks suggest to some analysts that al-Qaida or other extremists wish to provoke mayhem or otherwise sabotage negotiations to form a stable government after the March 7 parliamentary election that failed to produce a clear winner.

"These attacks indicate a hopeless effort to mix cards and provoke sectarian dispute among people and turn Iraq again back to square one," said Dr. Hassan Kamil, a political analyst at Baghdad University.

A secular bloc is currently holding talks with religious Shiite parties, a threatening prospect for insurgents whose stock-in-trade is rage, not peace. Such attacks might inflame sectarian tensions and make Shiite parties less likely to join former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite backed by Sunnis.

Allawi's political coalition, Iraqiya, came out ahead in the vote, narrowly edging Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bloc by just two seats. Allawi raised the prospect that terror attacks will only increase if the negotiations drag on for months to form a new government.

"This is blamed on the power vacuum, of course," Allawi told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. "Terrorists and al-Qaida are on the go. ... I think their operations will increase in Iraq."

Allawi said the government was failing to secure the capital — a notion challenged by al-Maliki adviser Sadiq al-Rikabi, who suggested that Allawi was exploiting the attacks for political purposes.

"It is true that terrorism and attacks are attributed to the political situation the country is experiencing, and we have faced terrorism before elections as well," al-Rikabi said.

No matter who ends up in charge, the resurgent violence underscores that the next government will have a difficult time governing an unwieldy society of disparate tribes, ethnic groups and religious sects which Saddam Hussein ruled for decades by punishing or killing those who opposed him.

Tuesday's attacks killed at least 50 people and wounded 187, including women and children — a toll the AP reached after talking with police and medical officials in different parts of the capital. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release information publicly.

The attackers detonated homemade bombs and, in one case, a car packed with explosives, according to Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman for Baghdad's operations command center. He said there were at least seven blasts. The U.S. military in Baghdad said there were eight.

The first blasts targeted the Shula area of northwest Baghdad, striking a residential building and an intersection about a mile away. Minutes later, at 9:45 a.m., a bomb left in a plastic bag exploded at a restaurant on the ground floor of an apartment building in the Allawi district downtown, near the Culture Ministry. Some two hours after that, a parked car bomb exploded in a market, killing six civilians.

The bombings were the fourth set of attacks with multiple casualties across Iraq in five days.

On Monday, a Shiite couple and four of their children were gunned down in their home outside Baghdad, while more than 40 were killed Sunday in triple suicide car bomb attacks near embassies in Baghdad. On Friday, gunmen went house-to-house in a Sunni area south of Baghdad, killing 24 villagers execution-style.

Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes, Hamid Ahmed, David Rising and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

Outrage in Egypt after cleric speaks out on Sunni-Shiite strife

September 28, 2008

CAIRO (AFP) — Egyptian writers have expressed outrage after a controversial cleric accused Iran of neo-colonialism by seeking to spread Shiism in Sunni Muslim states, sparking fears of sectarian strife.

Speaking during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who hosts a religious programme on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel, last week accused Iranians of having "imperial dreams" of taking over the Sunni world.

In comments reported by the Egyptian independent daily Al-Masry al-Yom, Qaradawi said: "I don't accept that any Arab or foreign country attack Iran, but I don't accept that Iran attack any Arab country, especially seeing as some Iranians have imperial dreams, which is wrong and dangerous."

"What is happening is organised, an invasion... It is not a religious invasion but a political one. Iran is trying to impose itself on those around it and we refuse to follow a new form of neo-colonialism, be it Iranian or any other," said Qaradawi, himself an Egyptian.

His comments sparked outrage in some circles which consider Qaradawi's remarks dangerous, particularly as fears of sectarian conflict rose after the explosion of such violence in Iraq in 2006.

In some Gulf states, particularly those with Shiite minorities such as Saudi Arabia, Iran's support for Shiites in Iraq is seen as reinforcing those fears.

Moderate Islamic thinker Tareq al-Bishri slammed Qaradawi's comments, saying his attack against Shiism was inflammatory.

"This fascism in the name of the Sunni majority against Shiites is the most dangerous thing for the Islamic nation because it pits Muslims against each other instead of against the invaders of their lands," Bishri wrote in the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Dustur on Saturday.

Islamist columnist Fahmy Huweidi said Qaradawi's comments revealed two parallel trends in the Islamic world, "one that is busy defending the sect, the other busy defending the Islamic nation."

He warned that further attacks on Shiism will "lead to splits in the ranks and will only weaken all parties in the face of the current challenges which do not spare Sunni or Shiite."

Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world's oldest Islamic seat of learning, acknowledges Shiism as a legitimate branch of Islam.

In 1959, the then Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Mahmud Shaltut, issued a religious edict or fatwa recognising Shiism as "religiously correct."

But the rise of Iraq's long-downtrodden Shiites and of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement alongside Iran's growing influence have left many Sunni Arab regimes feeling insecure.

In Egypt, the press has increasingly reported on what it calls a covert Shiite invasion.

"We won't allow the existence of a Shiite tide in Egyptian mosques," Minister of Waqf (religious endowments) Mahmud Hamdi Zaqzuq told Al-Masri al-Yom in July.

Former Al-Azhar professor Adbel Moneim al-Berri said that Egyptian Shiite experts, including himself, have been asked to educate state security officers about "Shiite ideology and plans to break through the Sunni countries."

"When I left Egypt 47 years ago, it had not a single Shiite and now there are many... who took them to Shiism? Egypt is the cradle of Sunnism and the country of Al-Azhar," Qaradawi said.

There are no reliable figures for Egypt's Shiite population. The US State Department's 2008 report on religious freedom says that Egyptian Shiites account for less than one percent of its 80-million-strong population.


Muslim cleric calls for ban

Richard Kerbaj

October 05, 2006

AUSTRALIA'S most senior Islamic cleric has called for a Muslim leader to be ostracised over comments about the prophet Mohammed that he likened to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

Taj Din al-Hilali yesterday accused the chairman of John Howard's Islamic reference board, Ameer Ali, of selling out his religion to gain the support and financial backing of Muslim critics.

Dr Ali said in The Australian yesterday that Mohammed had flaws, and criticised Muslims who blindly followed the faith and failed to question the veracity of the Koran.

Sheik Hilali, the head of Lakemba Mosque in Sydney's southwest, said Dr Ali's "defamatory" remarks were akin to those that in 1989 earned Rushdie a fatwa from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

While Sheik Hilali backed Dr Ali's call for a reinterpretation of the Koran to fit modern times, he condemned his "dangerous" and "ignorant" comments about the prophet.

"We forbid such statements, from both Ameer Ali and anyone who has encouraged him to say what he said," Sheik Hilali said in an interview conducted in Arabic.

"We refuse to have him stand with us at any religious ceremony from now on, unless he revokes what he said about the faith and the prophet."

But the Howard Government yesterday strongly backed Dr Ali's comments, with Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration Andrew Robb saying Dr Ali should be congratulated.

"I do think that Ameer Ali seems to be encouraging the teaching and the practice of Islam in an Australian context, and I think that's to be warmly applauded," Mr Robb said.

"I think it's critical that Islam is presented to Australian Muslims in an Australian context."

Islamic Friendship Association president Keysar Trad said the Koran recorded that Mohammed was "rebuked" on a few occasions by God. "(But) that different outlook is not to suggest that his human judgment was fallible," he said. "On the balance of human judgment, it was a perfect judgment in the circumstances, but God's judgment is greater, God's judgment always has more wisdom."

Young Muslim leader Moustapha Kara-Ali attacked Dr Ali, accusing him of conduct akin to the Danish cartoons about the prophet and the comments last month from Pope Benedict XVI about Mohammed spreading the faith by the sword.

Mr Kara-Ali, who recently won a government grant to combat Islamic radicalisation, said Dr Ali's comments were at odds with those of Australian Muslims.

"Prophethood is a station that is chosen for some men by God," he said. "And to put flaw in the character of the chosen man is to put flaw in the wisdom of the God who chose."

He said the interpretation of the Koran was an ongoing scholarly project, but that didn't mean the text's veracity should be questioned.

Asked if he agreed with Dr Ali that the Koran should be interpreted metaphorically not literally, Mr Kara-Ali said: "If that means we question the veracity then no, definitely not."


50 Killed at Religious Festival in Iraq


New York Times

August 28, 2007

BAGHDAD, Aug. 28 — A power struggle between rival Shiite groups erupted during a religious festival in Karbala today, as gunmen with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades fought street battles amid crowds of pilgrims, killing 50 people and wounding 200, Iraqi officials said.

Witnesses said members of the Mahdi Army, the militia of cleric Moktada al-Sadr, traded fire with security forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government.

Amid hours of fighting, several vehicles and a hotel for pilgrims were set ablaze, and terrified pilgrims who had been praying at two shrines were trapped inside as clashes erupted nearby. Witnesses said buses that had been used to bring pilgrims to the city were bullet-shattered and bloodstained.

The government forces in Karbala and other towns in southern Iraq are dominated by the religious party the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its armed wing, the Badr organization.

Many of Badr’s fighters are veterans trained by Iran during two decades when they lived as exiles there under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Tensions between the Mahdi Army and the Badr group have been simmering for months. Both are vying for control of the overwhelmingly Shiite regions of central and southern Iraq. This political and military rivalry is also fueled by competing loyalties to two of the most prominent Shiite religious families in Iraq: the Hakims and the Sadrs.

Mr. Sadr’s credentials as a religious leader are boosted enormously by the prestige of his late father and cousin, both revered Shiite leaders who were assassinated by Mr. Hussein. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council was founded by Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, a well-known politician and cleric who was himself assassinated in 2003 and whose father was mentor to the founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Two provincial governors belonging to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council were assassinated in southern Iraq this month, although the Sadrists deny involvement.

The showdown will prove embarrassing for Prime Minister Maliki if his security forces are unable to control the Mahdi Army and restore order in a holy city that lies in his own Shiite heartland.

Security forces imposed an indefinite curfew on Karbala by nightfall, fearing that the Sadr-Badr tensions could escalate as both sides vied for control of the streets. The violence appeared to spread to other cities, although attacks on mosques and offices linked to the Badr group were on a much smaller scale. In Baghdad, the police said five people were killed and 20 were wounded in clashes between militiamen in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City.

Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman in Baghdad, told Iraqi state television that reinforcements were being rushed to Karbala from Baghdad and surrounding provinces. The American military did not intervene directly in the fighting, a spokeswoman said, though it sent jets to fly over Karbala as a “show of force” at the request of the Iraqi authorities.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims had descended on Karbala in recent days to celebrate the birth of Mohammad al-Mahdi, the 9th-century saint and the last of 12 imams revered by Shiites. As pilgrims gathered in a plaza between the city’s twin golden-domed shrines, witnesses said Mahdi Army fighters took up positions around the shrines and traded fire with the police. Pilgrims fled in panic but were unable to get transportation out of the area as the police set up roadblocks to prevent Mahdi Army fighters from entering.

A policeman speaking from his position in the plaza between the city’s two shrines said: “Hundreds of Mahdi Army have occupied several hotels near the two shrines. The battle is fierce and we are defending our posts here.”

Amid the narrow, medieval alleyways of Karbala confusion reigned, with an unconfirmed report that the Mahdi Army had taken control of the shrines, while the security forces remained in control of their checkpoints in the center of the city.

One pilgrim reached by telephone at the height of the fighting said: “I am inside the shrine of Imam Hussein. The shooting is so heavy outside, and I can’t leave the shrine. I don’t know exactly what is going on outside, but the clashes seem close to the shrine.” The voices of women shouting in panic were audible in the background.

The tensions in Karbala began Monday, with confrontations between Sadr supporters and the Badr-dominated security forces around the shrines. Those forces are on a constant state of high alert after suicide bombings by Sunni insurgents at Shiite religious festivals in previous years.

Sadrists said the police who carried out body searches and magnetic scans at checkpoints provoked their followers by beating pilgrims who chanted pro-Sadr slogans. Other reports said that Mahdi Army followers accompanying pilgrims and claiming to be protecting them were prohibited from taking their weapons into the shrines.

Iraqi officials said those initial clashes escalated on Monday night when police attacked the al-Mukhayam mosque, a Mahdi Army stronghold in Karbala, and arrested around 20 fighters. The Mahdi Army retaliated this morning, the police said, by attacking security force positions.

Gunmen also attacked Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council offices and mosques in Sadr City, Shuala, Jadriya, Husseiniya, Khadimiya, and Diwaniya.

Haydar Abbas, a lecturer in law at the University of Babil in central Iraq, believed it was significant that the confrontation took place at a time when the Sadrists appeared to feel increasingly marginalized. Mr. Sadr’s followers left the government earlier this year over a disagreement with Prime Minister Maliki about the continued American troop presence in Iraq.

In recent days, after widespread criticism, Mr. Maliki’s government announced measures, however limited, to initiate reconciliation with the country’s disaffected Sunni minority.

Mr. Abbas noted that the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council’s influence is growing, especially after that agreement. “They have a lot of power over Maliki,” he said. “What is going on is a message from the Sadrists that we are here and we will not withdraw easily.”

“If we read the history of the two movements, the Badrists and the Mahdi Army, we see that both were military factions turned into political powers. This means that they might revert at any time to their military nature,” Mr. Abbas said.

Both sides last night sought to blame each other for the fighting. The Sadr office in Najaf issued a statement from Mr. Sadr appealing for calm.

“We want to clear up the misunderstanding that happened in Karbala. This crisis is not connected with the Mahdi Army or Sadr movement. The incidents that happened were between the pilgrims and the government forces.”

Prime Minister Maliki’s office issued a statement calling its opponents “armed criminals and followers of the old regime” and saying that order had been restored to the streets.

Separately, Abdul Jabar Al-Waga, the deputy oil minister, was released in Baghdad today after being kidnapped with four other ministry employees on Aug. 14. The government insisted that no ransom had been paid.