July 13, 2003


Mystery Blast Highlights U.S. Military's Dilemma
* An unresolved, deadly incident at a mosque points up the difficulty of managing Iraq.

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Terry McDermott, Times Staff Writers


By all accounts, Laith Khalil Dahham was a prodigy of Islamic learning.

The ascetic young man was always at the top of his class and became an imam at his hometown mosque when he was 17. He was made spiritual leader of a much larger mosque here five years later, earning the honorific "sheik." Students from throughout the region began seeking him out.

"Sheik Laith used to tell the truth," said Khalid Hamed Mahal, imam of Safwat al Rahman mosque here. "He had no fear of anybody. He spoke to Muslims in a way that gave Muslims confidence in him."

A mysterious explosion obliterated the sheik's dwelling in the mosque compound in the working-class Al Askari neighborhood just after late prayers June 30. The 25-year-old Dahham, badly burned, blinded and his right leg blasted in half, survived a few hours before dying in a Baghdad hospital. Six other young men also were killed.

U.S. military authorities had been monitoring the young preacher at Al Hassan ibn Ali mosque because his sermons urged worshipers to resist the foreigners. The authorities suspect that the mosque compound was being used as a bomb factory and the explosion was an accident caused by the men inside, although there have been conflicting statements on this point and no public evidence to support it.

To the Americans, Dahham was a jihadist. But to many people in Fallouja and beyond, he is a martyr dishonored in death by the Americans. The resulting uproar demonstrates how difficult it can be for the military--not designed for subtlety--to manage the sort of volatile situations that arise in occupied Iraq.

Not counting Dahham, U.S. authorities report only three instances of active, violent Islamist involvement in the resistance, and speculation that the mosque explosion signaled the emergence of a militant Islamist front seems premature. But the confusing aftermath of the incident at Fallouja has fueled fears that it may prove a catalyst for militancy.

From he U.S. viewpoint, the bombing could hardly have occurred at a worse time and place. Persistent resistance to the U.S.-led occupation has roiled the city and the surrounding Sunni heartland of west-central Iraq.

Last week, for example, Iraqi police here demonstrated against the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in the police compound downtown because the police feared being so close to troops that are so frequently the targets of attacks. By week's end, Army officials said they were scaling back their patrols downtown.

Laith Khalil Dahham, the eldest of four siblings, was born in Al Bahawa, a farm village in the Euphrates basin near Fallouja where life is governed by the long rhythms of the crops and the daily rituals of prayer. It is a quiet place, said his father, Khalil, a senior figure in the Al Zobai tribe here.

The younger Dahham's short life appears to have focused almost exclusively on the exploration of his religion. He was trained in the Naqshbandi way of Islam, part of the mystical Sufi tradition popular in and around Fallouja. Practitioners are notably nonpolitical--and, until recently, worshipers say, Dahham's sermons were exclusively spiritual affairs.

Men from around the region began coming to him for private study in his simple, cinder-block residence next to the mosque. There were in total about two dozen men; the size of the group varied from night to night. Some slept over--the U.S. enforces an 11 p.m. curfew--making the lodgings a social as well as religious center.

Some time after the U.S.-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, Dahham's sermons took a turn toward current events--and militancy.

"He was provoking people to jihad--it is well known," said Taghlib Alousi, a longtime acquaintance and a founder of the Iraq Unified National Movement, one of a number of new Islamic parties.

It is unclear whether the young preacher called outright for attacks against the occupation forces, as some said, or simply advised listeners to resist the "invaders," as others recalled. Whatever his message, it came to the attention of the U.S. military. The Army is on the lookout for potential enemies--as well as for allies.

"What we have been doing is co-opting the local leadership--the imams and the sheiks," said Maj. Joffery Watson, an intelligence officer for the unit occupying Fallouja. "Leveraging their influence. It's easier to reach the community."

The imam's homilies were cause for concern, Watson said: "Identifying us as occupiers. That we're here to do things that are not part of our mission."

The military went to its contacts, including senior religious leaders and Fallouja Mayor Taha Bedani, who governs with U.S. support.

Dahham was summoned to two meetings during the week of June 23, one with the mayor and religious leaders in City Hall, and the second with a similar group at a prominent mosque.

"I reminded him of the Koranic proverb, 'Don't deliberately put yourself in a place that may lead to your death,' " recalled Abdul Rahman Taha, the mayor's son, who spoke privately with his old schoolmate at City Hall. "He replied, 'I was only preaching what was in the Koran.' "

The admonitions seemed to have their intended effect. On his final Friday of life, Dahham moderated his message, according to people familiar with the speech. Instead of resistance, he spoke of the need for Muslims to prepare themselves for death.

The following Monday, June 30, Ahmed Hamed Sulayman, who had become a regular member of the imam's group, made the hourlong trek from Baghdad west to Fallouja to meet with Dahham. He arrived about 1:30 in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day with Dahham.

They attended prayers, went to the market and spent the evening counseling a troubled married couple, Sulayman said.

They returned to Dahham's mosque about 10:35 p.m. They performed the ritual washing before the day's final prayers, and Dahham entered his living quarters.

"There were already people there," Sulayman said. "I was about to go after him and then I know nothing. I woke up in the hospital."

By Sulayman's account, then, the young sheik was away from the mosque much of the afternoon and evening--when U.S. authorities say the bomb-making activity was going on.

Omar Rauf, a young blacksmith who lives nearby, had stopped by a few minutes before the blast to speak with the imam about a fence that he was helping to build for the mosque. Rauf said he saw nothing unusual inside the sheik's quarters, just students, including his younger brother, Abdul, and books. Rauf walked to his car, about 25 yards away.

"I was getting into my car, and everything just blew up," Rauf said.

The blast buckled the walls of the structure in the mosque compound, causing the steel-reinforced roof to crush those inside and causing most of the deaths, U.S. investigators surmised later. Among those killed was the blacksmith's brother.

None of the dead was known to have belonged to an organized resistance.

Frantic relatives transported Dahham to five hospitals in three cities. A private hospital in Baghdad finally agreed to treat him for 1 million dinars upfront--about $650--but the imam died before anything could be done. There were at least four survivors.

The morning after the blast, an angry crowd gathered at the devastated mosque compound. Residents overwhelmingly expressed the belief that the Americans had bombed the building from the air, and some reported seeing an airplane fly over and a flash of light just before the blast.

U.S. officials categorically deny any American involvement, be it from a warplane, artillery or other source. No U.S. shell casings, rocket parts or other debris were found at the site, said Maj. Michael Peloquin, who led the ordnance team that responded to the explosion.

Peloquin and others on the ordnance detail acknowledged that their findings were inconclusive. The team is trained in weapons collection and disposal, not after-blast assessment. Peloquin could only estimate that the explosion had been caused by something larger than a single stick of dynamite but smaller than a 300-pound car bomb. U.S. officials said they are awaiting chemical analysis.

On the day after the blast, a military briefer in Baghdad said it was possible the imam and his students were making bombs. The following day, July 2, the U.S. Central Command in Florida issued a statement that said the explosion was "apparently related to a bomb-making class that was being taught inside the mosque."

On July 3, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of ground forces in Iraq, said Iraqi police told his investigators that bomb-making was going on in the building.

But the U.S.-backed Fallouja police chief, Riyadh Abbas, said he had given no evidence to the U.S. supporting the bomb factory theory.

Shortly after the incident, Abbas recalled how a U.S. colonel seemed stunned that police would consider an American strike as a possible cause of the blast.

"I could see that the colonel was becoming very uncomfortable," the chief said. "Sweat was running down his brow."

The Army--increasingly exasperated by residents' claims that the U.S. had somehow bombed the mosque--arranged a news conference in Fallouja with civil and religious leaders who were considered moderates. The message was that the Americans had nothing to do with the blast--though none of the Iraqis endorsed the notion that the sheik and his followers were bomb-makers.

"Sheik Laith and the others who were with him were not criminals," declared Abdul Sattar Hardan, a leading Fallouja religious elder who has called for cooperating with U.S. forces and agreed that the U.S. did not cause the blast.

The day after the news conference, the Central Command issued another statement. This one paraphrased Mayor Bedani, who had spoken at the news conference. It said in part: "The mayor emphasized the explosion was not a U.S. attack, but Iraqis making explosive devices to be used against coalition forces."

The mayor had said no such thing. He later called the CentCom statement a fabrication.

A week later, Lt. Col. Eric Wesley, the executive officer of the Army brigade that patrols Fallouja, said two men who knew about bomb-making activity in the mosque had come forward. The men had gone that evening to confront Dahham when the bomb blew, according to Wesley.

The lieutenant colonel said he had information that one bomb had been built and another was under construction. He called Dahham a "rogue imam."

Other witnesses, including survivors of the blast, were not interviewed by authorities. The Times found two of them, both students of the imam, who were in the compound at the time, one in the room with Dahham, one immediately outside it. A third person interviewed by The Times, the blacksmith, had just left the site. All three insisted that there was no evidence of bomb-making.

The suggestion that the dead had formed a kind of guerrilla cell has enraged local leaders--including those who worked with the Americans--and the families of the victims.

Many condemn the U.S. assertions as a rush to judgment after a sketchy investigation, and some moderates--including Mayor Bedani, Police Chief Abbas and Sattar, the religious elder--favor another explanation: that a third party planted the bomb to drive a wedge between residents and the Army.

"He considered the Americans invaders and occupiers, as we all do, but he was not a violent boy," Abdul Karim Mohammed Ibrahim said of his son Abdul Rauf, who was killed in the blast. "The Americans have made a great mistake."

The current mood in Iraq is brittle. It is exacerbated by the heat, the lack of basic services and jobs, a broad resentment of the occupation and the continuing hostilities. The violent deaths of a respected religious leader from a well-known family and of his students have deeply disturbed many in this conservative place known as the city of mosques.

"We are not calling for war. We are always calling for peace," said Khalid Hamed Mahal, another Fallouja imam. "But when war is declared against us, we have an expression: Our leadership will be the teachings of Muhammad."

The morning after the Fallouja explosion, simple wooden boxes containing the remains of five of the dead were laid out in front of the mosque as worshipers performed midday prayers. Afterward, the people of Al Hassan mosque hoisted the coffins on their shoulders and marched boisterously to the austere cemetery, a little over a mile away.

Kalashnikov rifles crackled as the procession proceeded through the Al Askari neighborhood and picked up new recruits. The U.S. Army was nowhere in sight, and mourners vowed revenge to Allah.

Days later, Ahmed Jasim, a longtime friend, spoke about the dead imam:

"Sheik Laith, he is with God now. He has had a wonderful death, a martyr's death We are all hoping to have a similar end, to be martyrs like Sheik Laith."

This, Jasim and others believe, is a way to paradise. For the long-term U.S. prospects in Iraq, it is anything but.

Original URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/complete/la-fg-fallouja13jul13234428,1,4960034.story?coll=la-iraq-complete

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