Returned exile rallies Sunnis
By Adel Darwish
(Filed: 22/04/2003)

A traditionalist Sunni cleric exiled for years from Iraq has returned to Baghdad to spearhead resistance against a Shia takeover, apparently with the backing of several Arab governments.

Ahmad el-Kebeisey, 68, took Friday prayers in the Abi Hanifa mosque in al-A'azamia, a Sunni district of Baghdad, and called for Iraqis to unite and get rid of "American and British occupiers".

At his instigation the congregation went on a protest march, joining thousands more to become the first major post-war demonstration against coalition forces.

Dr el-Kebeisey, a former professor of Islamic studies at Baghdad university, had been in exile in Dubai for six years.

According to Arab diplomats his sudden return was urged by the United Arab Emirates and "other regional interests" to rally the "Sunni street".

Iraq's majority Shias, long the victims of minority Sunni governments, a tradition continued with renewed brutality by Saddam Hussein, are already organised in political movements. The two schools of Islamic thought have been bitter, and at times bloody, rivals for centuries.

Traditionalist Sunnis in the Gulf region fear a Shia government in Iraq would change the balance of power between the sects, creating a crescent of Shia-ruled states from the Mediterranean - the Assads of Syria are from the Shi'ite Alawite minority - to the Khyber Pass.

Intelligence sources said the Americans facilitated Dr el-Kebeisey's journey to Baghdad in an attempt to balance the growing Shia strength.

In exile he condemned Iraqi opposition factions in America and Europe as "traitors and stooges of America working to realise Jewish aims".