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U.S. denies troops defiled Baghdad mosque

Sunni protesters accuse Americans of damaging Koran in raid

Angry Sunni protesters gathered outside of the Sunni Muslim mosque in Baghdad.
Angry Sunni protesters gathered outside of the Sunni Muslim mosque in Baghdad.

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Armed Conflict

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- A U.S. military commander defended coalition troops Friday against allegations they defiled the Koran during a raid on a Sunni Muslim mosque in Baghdad.

On New Year's Day, coalition soldiers entered the Ibn Taymiyah mosque in the southwestern part of the Iraqi capital, where they found a large weapons cache and arrested 32 people, spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt.

In a protest Friday, angry Sunnis accused the troops of ripping pages in the mosque's copy of the Koran, Islam's holy book, as their leaders called for an end to the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Sunnis are the Muslim sect of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"Bush, you are the devil," some protesters shouted. "We are the soldiers of Allah."

One demonstrator said, "Certainly, rancor and hatred of American government will increase. What do you expect from an occupied people whose sanctities are trampled by Americans?"

But Kimmitt said U.S. troops tried to be sensitive to the mosque's spiritual basis by following Iraq Civil Defense Corps personnel and Iraqi police into the place of worship.

"Despite the clear use of this mosque for criminal, terrorist and anti-coalition activities, great care was taken by coalition forces to uphold the sanctity of the mosque and to use the minimum amount of force necessary to conduct the operation," he said.

Kimmitt called the mosque a "hub of anti-coalition and anti-Iraqi activities" and the scene of insurgency cells' meetings.

He said confiscated weapons included high explosives, TNT, blasting caps, gunpowder, grenades, detonation cord, artillery primers, rocket launchers, mortar tubes and sights, AK-47 rifles and ammunition. Soldiers also found materials for making the small bombs regularly used to target coalition convoys, he said.

Several of the men detained in the raid had dialects that suggest they are not Iraqis, Kimmitt added.

Mosque leaders invited a CNN crew into the mosque Friday to show what they said American soldiers had done, including a damaged copy of the Koran, a gift to the mosque from former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

"They tore up the book of God," one mosque leader said. "God will tear them up. They trampled the book of God with their feet. They had the pretext of weapons, but they have found no weapons but found the Koran and tore up the Koran."

Kimmitt said the Army investigated the allegations and found them unfounded.

"... The coalition forces have been asked that specific question, and all deny taking any activities against some of the artifacts inside the mosque," he said.

Americans entering mosques is a sensitive issue for Iraqis, something Kimmitt said was considered in the raid's planning.

Mosque leaders who remained free Friday demanded the release of the men detained, including their sheik.

Ransacked room inside the mosque after the raid by US soldiers.
Ransacked room inside the mosque after the raid by US soldiers.

"If they do not release the detained, they [Sunnis] will expel the Americans and hit the Americans everywhere," a mosque leader said.

Another leader denied that Sunnis from the mosque had ever used violence to protest the U.S. presence.

"We have been filled with frustration since the arrival of American forces, and we seek to drive them out," he said. "But we have used no military approach in this mosque. It is just calls to unify Sunnis and to solve their problems."

He also accused U.S. leaders of being angry that the Sunnis are trying to set up a religious authority, similar to one Shiite Muslims established. Shiites, the majority Muslim sect in Iraq, make up about 60 percent of the country's population.

Kimmitt said the mosque was clearly "being used for purposes other than free religious expression." The action was taken, he said, based on reports from Iraqis that the mosque was the scene of criminal and terrorist activities.

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