Hardliners threaten charity, may force Iraqi orphanage to close

Hard-lines Shiites threaten the people who run a charity in Iraq that serves about 50 orphans because, the critics say, it teaches the children pagan beliefs.

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BAGHDAD // As director of a small charity helping a few dozen of Iraq's vast number of orphaned children, Abu Mohammad believed his work had the support of the entire community.

But two months ago his organisation, Hope, started attracting heavy criticism from hard-line Shiite religious circles, with accusations the charity was trying to destroy Islam and spread pagan beliefs.

"It happened suddenly and I don't know why. People started to say we were attacking Islam and spreading Masonic ideology," said Abu Mohammad, who spoke on condition that his full name not be published.

The verbal assaults were threatening enough that he asked for protection from the authorities and moved to a different city, preferring to commute the 30 kilometres from Baghdad than continue living in Mahmudiya, where the charity has its centre.

"In Iraq, these accusations of being against Islam are very serious, we feel our lives are in jeopardy," he said. "I'm not sure how long we will remain open, the charity might close. We cannot carry on under these conditions."

For more than two years his organisation has provided psychological support and education services for 50 orphans in Mahmudiya, one of the many towns scarred by sectarian violence.

It lies in the heart of an area once known by US soldiers as the Triangle of Death, a melting pot of insurgents, Al Qaeda fighters and Shiite militias. The town is largely Shiite, surrounded by a Sunni dominated countryside.

At the height of Iraq's civil war, powerful Shiite militias linked to the Sadr movement sprung up to protect its inhabitants against attacking Sunni extremists.

With a heavy US and Iraqi troop presence, and the advent of the tribal awakening, which saw Al Qaeda's allies shift sides to help rout the militants, the situation had calmed significantly by 2009. It was in that year that Hope opened its doors.

But, according to Abu Mohammad, the hard-line Shiite ideologies that took root in Mahmudiya during the war were never fully dismantled. Instead, they lay dormant and have now begun to reappear.

"I can only connect it to the fact the Americans are pulling back," he said. "They have closed many of their operations here and we know they are supposed to leave the country soon. This has left a space that the Shiite extremists and the Sadrists are returning into."

Led by the cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, the Sadrists have become a leading player in Iraqi politics. Following the 2003 invasion, the group's military wing, the Mahdi Army, fought pitched battles against Al Qaeda as well as US and Iraqi government troops. It also tried to enforce strict moral codes where it held sway, calling for a ban on televised football matches.

Mr Al Sadr subsequently disbanded his militia and told his fighters to wage a cultural war against US influence. More recently the cleric said armed units would be reactivated to fight US troops if they do not leave by the end of the year.

A large part of Hope's funding came from the US government, which had supported the project as part of its reconstruction effort. Although US troops are far from universally popular in Mahmudiya, many community figures had agreed that Hope was right to take US financial support and was providing an important service to orphans.

Now, however, charity workers and community figures say the organisation is being targeted by Sadrists and other Shiite hardliners because it took US money. Local newsletters and websites linked to Shiite institutions in Mahmudiya have published stories saying Hope has been teaching orphans Western culture and customs, and are being steered away from Islam.

The names of people involved in the charity and other organisations believed to have received US money have also been published online, accusing them of working with the Americans.

"There is talk in Mahmudiya that we are trying to brainwash vulnerable young Iraqis and to teach them American ways, not Iraqi ways," said Abu Mohammad. He rejected the allegations, saying the charity taught tolerance and acceptance of others.

An official with Mumahidoon, the Sadrists' cultural wing, denied the group had threatened Hope, or other non-governmental organisations that have made similar complaints of intimidation against the Sadr movement.

"It is true that we are waging a cultural war against US influence," the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press. "But we do so in a peaceful way. We are opposed to Americans' music, television and cultural ways. We are against anything that could affect Islamic principles or weaken Iraqis' feeling of being Iraqi."

The official said education was a key battleground.

"It is apparent to everyone that young Iraqis are being taught Western ideas and ideals," he said. "We are Arabs and we are Muslims. We do not want to be Westernised or Christian. We must oppose this threat to our culture."

In the town of Shatrah, in Nasariya, a strongly Shiite area of Iraq 470km further south from Mahmudiya, members of an informal social club complained of coming under "moral intimidation" from religious groups.

Concerned about their safety, the club suspended its weekly meetings, which had typically consisted of a handful of local intellectuals discussing politics, literature and music.

"Graffiti started appearing on walls saying we were spreading un-Islamic, radical ideas during out meetings," said the club chairman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "People started saying we were too secular and that we were trying to spread American gang culture to the city, that we are corrupting Islam."