Special Reports

Religion plays a strong role in Iraq

KIRKUK, Iraq — Iraq has a newly elected government and a fledgling army and police force. But in Iraq, religious leaders are like another branch of government.

"The mosque in the neighborhood is very influential," said Capt. Mitch Smith, commander of the 116th Brigade Combat Team's Bravo Company. "Religion is much more important here, so we treat it like a government institution."

Among the jobs of the 116th in Northern Iraq is training Iraqi police and working on building trust with local citizens and leaders. Officers with Bravo Company met last week with a Kirkuk mullah to build a relationship and thank him for helping to reduce violence and tension in the city. Mullahs are religious leaders who exercise great regional influence here.

It was Mullah Muhammed's first visit to Patrol Base Barbarian, the downtown Kirkuk outpost where Bravo Company is stationed. The mullah and the Idaho soldiers discussed the troubled Oruba neighborhood where insurgents have frequently attacked the 116th's soldiers.

Muhammed took over the Oruba mosque last month, after Iraqi police arrested the previous mullah for preaching violence, racial unrest and harboring terrorists. Attacks have subsided since Mullah Muhammed took over.

Muhammed was dressed in an olive-drab dishdasha, the traditional muslin robe, with a white turban and black loafers. His long, angular face was framed by a pointed, gray-flecked beard.

Smith sat across from the mullah in his desert camouflage uniform and tan suede desert boots. His face was clean shaven; his hair close-cropped.

Through an interpreter, Smith thanked Muhammed for his help in easing tensions in Oruba.

"Allah loves all people equally," Muhammed replied, through an interpreter. "Everyone has to cooperate and work as one."

Smith asked what he could do to help the mullah. Muhammed mentioned an air conditioner for the mosque, some rugs and a drinking fountain, among other things.

Smith and Lt. Aaron Jarnagin of Idaho Falls discussed the requests; money is available through U.S. reconstruction funds. The two asked the mullah's assistant to get estimates so Smith and Jarnagin can start the paperwork.

All shook hands as Muhammed left the patrol base.

"It's all give and take," Smith said after the meeting. " 'What can we do for you?' is one of the first questions we ask because we know it's coming."