In a ritual practiced thousands of times, the men gather at two mosques — Um al-Qura in a Sunni neighborhood, Baratha in a Shiite one — at the appointed hour. The phrase "God is...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — In a ritual practiced thousands of times, the men gather at two mosques — Um al-Qura in a Sunni neighborhood, Baratha in a Shiite one — at the appointed hour. The phrase “God is greatest” is uttered four times, and the men line up in successive rows. An hour or so later, crowds spilling into the halls, they bow their heads in graceful uniformity. Silence ensues, and they pray.

The words uttered in between, though, echo across a yawning divide.

Each week in Baghdad, sermons to the faithful offer a tale of two Fridays. Both sermons — one Sunni, the other Shiite — dwell on the issues that color Baghdad’s weary life: the insurgency, elections planned for next month and the U.S. military presence. But the messages are so diametrically opposed as to speak to two realities and two futures for the country.

Vengeance on hold

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In Um al-Qura, built by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as the Mother of All Battles Mosque, the insurgency is celebrated as an act of resistance against a faithless and deceitful American occupier. In no less strident rhetoric, at the venerated Baratha mosque, that same insurgency is condemned as wicked and senseless violence waged by loyalists of Saddam and foreigners.

Elections are subjugation at the Sunni sermon, liberation at the Shiite one. And at each, the community’s patience, the preachers insist, is wearing dangerously thin after yet another provocation or slight.

Since the fall of Saddam in April 2003, Iraqi communities have resisted the impulse to settle scores, some of which are based on grievances dating back decades, even centuries. But in the words that fill the halls of Baratha and Um al-Qura are signs of what some in Iraq fear may lie ahead. Across a divide between sects who split in a seventh-century dispute over leadership of the Muslim community, each sermon offers the same combustible mix. There is utter certainty, blessed by God and justified by faith.

Sharing little, the sermons leave scant room for dialogue, even less for compromise.

And on any Friday in Baghdad, neither side seems to hear the other.

Accusing “them”

WATHIQ KHUZAIE / GETTY IMAGES

Supporters of Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani pray at a Friday prayer service as a poster urging participation in the coming elections is seen inside the Baratha mosque in Baghdad. Sermons there call the insurgency “terrorism.”

In a stentorian voice that lectured the dozens crowded in the domed sanctuary of Um al-Qura, preacher Ali Abu Hassan declared: “Again and again, they demonstrate a picture of hostility toward the faithful!” Speaking without notes, Abu Hassan never specified who “they” were. There was no need to.

In Sunni mosques such as Um al-Qura, there is no hesitation about the insurgency that rages in Baghdad and Sunni regions to the north and west. The insurgents are fighting for God, and the occupiers are infidels.

“Do not listen to the hypocrites and do not listen to those with no faith,” Abu Hassan said. “Do not trust your secrets to them, and do not take advice from them.” A pause, ever so brief, was followed by an admonition: “They don’t want good for you.”

The words were standard fare at Um al-Qura, in a turbulent stretch in western Baghdad, where armed insurgents can sometimes be seen in the streets. For years, the mosque was perhaps most distinctive for its kitschy design: In a memorial to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, four of its minarets were built to resemble Kalashnikovs, four others Scud missiles.

Its old name, the Mother of All Battles, is still inscribed over the entrance of the mosque, built of sand-colored concrete and blue tile, its dome with the phrase, “There is no god but God.”

After the U.S. invasion, it was renamed after the holy city of Mecca, and its role reincarnated as one of the capital’s most militant Sunni mosques, where fugitives hiding from the U.S. military show up to pray on Friday.

“The Americans have to realize that they need 25 million soldiers to defeat this population of 25 million Iraqis,” the preacher declared in a sermon there last month. He listed each city and declared it either in insurgent hands or soon to be: Fallujah, Mosul, Baqouba and Samarra. “The wombs of Iraqi women will bring more fighters into this world.”

On that Friday, the crowd responded with a cry of “God is greatest!”

Collaborators warned

In another sermon at the mosque, the message for Iraqis seen as collaborators was blunt.

“We know there are agents working for the enemies and we must warn them,” another preacher said. “But if they don’t wake up and abandon their wrong — the path of the devil — then we must deal with them mercilessly.”

Across town at the Baratha Mosque, in a Shiite neighborhood, a similar market springs up every Friday outside the mosque’s entrance, near barricades to deter car bombs. There are rows of other books — on the life of Shiite saints or the teachings of the grand ayatollahs whose words carry the force of law among Shiites. Posters celebrate them, both the living (Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani) and the dead (Mohammed Bakir Hakim, killed in a car bomb in 2003, and Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, assassinated in 1999).

On the entrance to Baratha, said to have been built before the city of Baghdad and one of its most revered Shiite sites, a leaflet condemns attacks by insurgents in a restive region south of Baghdad, on the way to the sacred city of Najaf.

“The terrorists have failed!” it intoned.

“The killers of today are the same killers of yesterday,” the prominent Shiite preacher, Jalaledin Saghir, declared Friday at the mosque, built of concrete and gray stone, its two minarets topped by green domes.

In a style almost conversational, Saghir was frank: The insurgency celebrated at Sunni mosques amounts to “terrorism,” and the attacks are no more than a cover for men loyal to Saddam or followers of Wahhabism, a militant Sunni sect implacably hostile to Shiites. There was less ambiguity here, little symbolism.

The avowedly pious men behind it, he said in another sermon, wear “the beards of devils and the gowns of hypocrites.”

With his own white turban and tunic and beard colored gray, Saghir is the clerical equivalent of a showman. He mixes humorous asides with stern admonitions, sarcasm with righteousness. He dismissed Arab foreign ministers as a’rab — a term that suggests uncultured Bedouins. He ridiculed the insurgents for calling themselves mujahedeen — sacred fighters. He belittled their tactics, casting the insurgency as little more than a futile attempt to block the ascendancy of the long-oppressed Shiite majority.

“Did they think they could fight the enemy’s technology with their Kalashnikovs?” he asked.

Ire and irony

In another sermon, the preacher ridiculed an insurgent attack on a mobile-phone office in Baghdad. On this Friday, as with others, his ire was directed almost overwhelmingly at the militants, with few words leveled against U.S. forces.

“It seems that the mobile phone is an infidel device,” he mocked. “Anyone who owns it is considered an infidel.”

The criticism of the insurgency is a preamble to the real issue at hand for Iraq’s Shiites: elections Jan. 30, which will choose a 275-member parliament that will oversee the writing of a constitution. Banners along the mosque’s entrance portray the vote as a decisive moment in the community’s history: “Participating in elections is a religious, national and moral duty.” Or, more directly: “The enemy of Iraqi is the enemy of democracy, justice and elections.”

“Today we have a duty and tomorrow we have a duty — urging the people and persuading them to participate in the election,” Saghir told the worshippers, who spilled along a red carpet into the courtyard outside. “This is a duty!”

Mixing it up

The sectarian lens can sometimes blur the nuances in Iraqi politics, and elections are no different. Unlike the mainstream clergy, the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, a young, populist Shiite cleric, has remained ambivalent about the vote. Some Sunni groups such as the influential Iraqi Islamic Party have defied calls for a boycott by registering for the ballot.

But along with the insurgency, elections represent perhaps the sharpest fault line through Iraq’s sectarian landscape. In the broadest sense, the disdain for the election among politicized Sunnis is matched only by the enthusiasm among religious Shiites. Since al-Sistani, the grand ayatollah, insisted that voting was a duty, the Shiite clergy have mobilized to carry out his edict. They have held lectures, organized meetings and, most powerfully, delivered the message in Friday sermons.

“We should go forward in the path of elections,” Saghir insisted.

For Shiites, the elections are a way to inherit by peaceful means power that was long monopolized by the Sunnis, who make up about a fifth of the country’s population. For some Shiites, the elections will undo mistakes made when Iraq was founded. In 1920, the Shiite clergy led a revolt against the British occupation after World War I. Once it was put down, the clergy kept up their opposition, rejecting Shiite participation in elections that followed and discouraging a role in the government and its institutions, which were soon dominated by Sunnis.

Among Iraqi Shiites, this history remains resonant. The sermons at Baratha roam from the founding of Islam and the death of seventh-century Shiite martyrs to more modern oppression. On Friday, Saghir criticized charges by some politicians that Iraq’s Shiites were unduly influenced by neighboring Iran, an overwhelmingly Shiite country.

This was the language of Saddam, he said, and it mimicked the tired rhetoric Saddam used in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. In the Shiite narrative, modern and ancient mingle, and the past shapes the present.

Drawing on history

At Um al-Qura, the Sunni preacher drew on the same history — with a different message.

Sometimes cited there is the Battle of Badr in 623, when an outnumbered Muslim force led by the Prophet scored a first victory against their enemies. On this day, the preacher recalled the Battle of Uhud, which occurred two years later, when the early Muslims were defeated after 300 fighters betrayed them and deserted their ranks.

The Muslims today, Abu Hassan told the Sunni worshipers, are being similarly betrayed by Iraqi collaborators who have deserted them and fallen for the infidels’ “cunning smiles.”

“When they see you, they will deceive you with beautiful words and beautiful conversation,” the preacher said. “If a disaster befalls you or evil comes your way, they become happy.” He went on: “They want the faithful to be poor, ignorant and divided. These three things make it easy for them to loot the riches of the country.”

In Sunni mosques like Um al-Qura, the elections are perhaps most objectionable because they would be perceived as a victory for the U.S. effort in Iraq. That project, many of the sermons insist, is founded on duplicity.

“The United States of America has built its glory upon the blood of innocents and portrays itself through the media as the bringer of peace and sermon,” a preacher said last month at Um al-Qura. “This war has uncovered the true face of the United States.”

War critics

The preacher offered a record of the U.S. experience in Iraq: the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the death of civilians in American attacks, the arrest of Sunni clerics, the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the illegality of the U.S. invasion. During his sermon, an explosion echoed from the distance, drawing cries from the crowd: “God is greatest!”

“We have grown to hate the words of freedom and democracy because of them,” he said to the worshippers, on a green carpet bordered with red flowers. “Could we be so ignorant as to believe that they want our interests after all this oppression?

“These elections are nothing more than a show in an attempt to fool us,” he added.

The sermons at Baratha and Um al-Qura often begin or end with a gesture of tolerance. Saghir, the Shiite preacher, will caution that “true Sunnis” are not all loyalists of Saddam or insurgents. At Um al-Qura, the sermon sometimes begins with blessings on the most revered Shiite saints: Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law, and Hussein, his grandson.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite movement prides itself on its nationalist message and its outreach to Sunnis. From the very first days after Saddam’s fall, Sunni and Shiite clerics stressed the slogan, “No Sunni, no Shiite, only Islam.” In opinion poll after opinion poll, when asked to list their affiliation, more people will simply list “Muslim,” rather than “Sunni” or “Shiite.”

“How long?”

But a fiercely sectarian undercurrent infuses the sermons these Fridays at the two mosques. Given the sermons’ reach — for many religious Iraqis, they are the window through which news and events are received and interpreted — they amount to more than words uttered to the converted over a loudspeaker. They convey a sense of popular sentiments, of everyday conversations.

In his sermons, in a mosque where a portrait hangs of a Shiite martyr — killed by Sunni militants and Baathists described as demons, Saghir preaches restraint. Then he warns that restraint has its limits.

“How long can we be patient in the face of these crimes which are happening every day?” he asked. In another sermon, he was more direct: “We warn you about the anger of the gentle and the patient. When anger erupts, nothing can stop it.”

At mosques like Um al-Qura, the Sunni community is fashioned as the bulwark against American and Israeli designs on the country.

Shiite Iranians posing as Iraqis are flooding the country, the preachers say, and the Kurds are serving as stooges of the U.S. presence. The Sunnis are the nation’s defenders against an occupation, and they are being called upon to act.

Special correspondent Khalid Saffar contributed to this report.