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Iraq's Muslims put faith in praying alone

The attacks and suicide bombings that have ripped through hundreds of mosques and shrines across Iraq are affecting Muslims profoundly, causing some to abandon Friday group prayers in the mosques, one of the holiest Muslim rites.
Shoe Bomber Kills 10 at Shiite Mosque
Iraqi soldiers investigate the scene of a suicide bombing at the Baratha Shiite mosque in Baghdad that killed 10 during Friday prayers on June 16. Hundreds of mosques across Iraq have closed amid sectarian violence, while others have seen a steep decline in worshippers.Muhannad Fala'ah / Getty Images
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In these new Friday mornings, Hussein Ali turns off the television. He asks his wife and five daughters to leave the room. He places a rug on the floor between two beds and a small refrigerator, faces southeast and, with deep regret, begins to pray in his bedroom.

Ali has left his mosque.

"God says, do not throw yourself into death," he said.

The attacks and suicide bombings that have ripped through hundreds of mosques and shrines across Iraq are affecting Muslims profoundly, causing some to abandon Friday group prayers in the mosques, one of the holiest Muslim rites. Prayer is one of Islam's five pillars, and the Koran encourages worshipers to pray in groups on Fridays.

Ali did not come lightly to his decision to stay home. For years, he said, he has had no more important appointment than Fridays at Baghdad's Baratha mosque, a revered Shiite shrine said to have been visited in the 7th century by Imam Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad.

‘Who will take care of us’?
But after suicide bombers struck at Baratha in April, killing at least 70 people at Friday prayers, Ali's wife confronted him. "I told her I would go, but she said: 'Who will take care of us if you get blown up? You don't have a salary or a pension,' " recalled Ali, 46, who runs a small shop that sells cigarettes and candy out of his home in the al-Salaam neighborhood of northwest Baghdad.

Then authorities imposed midday Friday curfews in Baghdad, outlawing vehicle traffic. For a man with a heart condition, a one-mile walk to the mosque in 115 degree heat is no easy feat. And June 16, another bomber attacked Baratha, killing at least 11 worshipers.

"I hope God will understand that I am forced to do this," said Ali. "If I didn't have a family, I would have wished to be a martyr."

Baratha is now as much fortress as mosque. Concrete blast walls ring the compound, and machine gunners on turrets, metal detectors and a fleet of armed guards secure it. Jalaledin Saghir, the mosque's preacher and a member of Iraq's parliament, says that most of the thousands of weekly worshipers have refused to abandon their prayers, continuing to kneel side by side under the ceiling fans and chandeliers.

"We are in a battle against terrorism," he said. "The Shias proved after all of the attacks that they challenge terrorism, they don't surrender to fear."

‘I know that I am a target’
The latest attacker at Baratha, who slipped in with C4 plastic explosive in his shoe and applied it to an explosive belt in the bathroom, made his way over the red prayer rugs to within about 10 yards of Saghir before blowing up, according to religious officials.

"I know that I am a target," Saghir said. "I am going to the mosque next Friday. And I believe there is going to be another explosion or a rocket attack, but I will not be scared."

Religious officials estimate Iraq has 4,700 Sunni mosques and more than 2,000 Shiite mosques, even though Shiites are the larger sect. The repression of Shiites under Saddam Hussein prevented their houses of worship from flourishing for many years, Shiite officials said.

Saleh al-Haideri, head of the Shiite Endowment, the government body that oversees Shiite mosques, said security in houses of worship deteriorated quickly not long after the U.S. invasion in 2003, when a respected ayatollah, Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, was assassinated in a car bombing outside a Shiite shrine in Najaf.

"Then it went on in various forms," Haideri said, speaking in his living room in Baghdad. "Bombed cars, explosive belts, mortars, direct killing when people came out of mosques, continued threats not to enter houses of worship."

Mixed reaction to attacks
At a Shiite mosque in central Baghdad this week, Sheik Fadha Messam Salum al-Dafai said attendance has nevertheless remained steady.

"A person who comes to the mosque knows that he will be a martyr and be sent to God if he is killed while he is praying," he said, resting his folded hands on a cane while he sat in the mosque's courtyard. "The attacks have maybe increased the number of worshipers who come to mosques."

Other religious leaders, particularly Sunnis, report a striking downturn in attendance, especially since the destruction of the golden dome of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February, which unleashed a torrent of sectarian bloodletting and reprisal attacks on mosques.

In the predominantly Shiite southern city of Basra, for example, nearly all of the Sunni mosques have closed to protest the killings of religious leaders, according to the Sunni Endowment. "The mosques were closed to save the lives of innocent people," said Khalid Hamdan, a member of the endowment. "The number of the attendants has not only decreased but almost vanished in Basra."

Mosques close their doors
More than 100 Sunni mosques have shut down in Basra, said Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, the largest organization representing Sunnis in Iraq. In Baghdad, Sunni authorities estimate that 45 have closed.

The attack on the Samarra shrine convinced Tariq Ismael, 62, that attending his al-Quds mosque in eastern Baghdad was no longer tenable. The retired government employee now prays in his living room under a picture of Mecca, his television tuned to a Friday prayer service.

"It is hard sometimes to concentrate, especially if we have guests at home or if my daughter brings over the grandchildren," he said.

Praying alone, he said, is a last resort, but a necessity in such violent times.

"Why would anyone attack a mosque? This is a house of God. Why don't they show respect for that?" he said. "I don't know whom to blame: Sunnis, Shiites, the government, the Americans, or is it just we Iraqis who have lost real faith?"

Abdul Latif Ali, 59, prays in his office at the Industry Ministry, at his brother's house and in a guest room in his home. These improvisations, he said, are not a substitute for the Sunni mosque that he used to attend in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood.

"There is a feeling of togetherness and total equality when sitting inside a mosque during the Friday prayers," he said. "The person sitting next to you can be a total stranger, yet there is a feeling of camaraderie and belonging. I miss this most."

Amid violence, signs of unity
This Friday, a group of worshipers answered a call from Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to march to Baratha for unified prayers involving Sunnis and Shiites in protest of the most recent bombing. On the way, gunmen started shooting at members of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, who returned fire, Interior Ministry officials said.

The holiday was not without violence for Sunnis, either. Worshipers leaving the Shaheed Jalal mosque in Hibhib, the village where insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed this month, walked into a bomb that killed nine people, Diyala province police said.

So next week in Baghdad, Hussein Ali will tend his shop, raise his five daughters and stay in inside his home. On Friday, he will close his door, turn off his television, kneel on the ground and pray. And he will be alone.

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Bassam Sebti and Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.