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Explosive Ramadan

International | IRAQ: It may be Muslims' high holy month of fasting-and U.S. troops are ordered to show respect for local customs-but terrorists in Iraq gorge themselves on violent attacks

Issue: "California's wall of fire," Nov. 8, 2003

For U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, Ramadan began with cultural-sensitivity training. Central Command ordered all fighting forces to take a crash course on respecting Islamic customs during the month-long holiday. But Middle East militants, not Yankees, crashed the holiday, ending before it had barely begun the early quiet of the first day's fast with a series of coordinated and deadly attacks on the capital city.

Suicide bombers struck two Iraqi police stations nearly simultaneously early Oct. 27. Five minutes later, a man drove an ambulance laden with explosives into the headquarters of the Red Cross. Two more explosions, also at police stations downtown, followed only minutes after that. The attacks left 38 dead and at least 220 injured. The next day another police station bombing, in Fallujah, killed four Iraqis. Terrorists assassinated one of Baghdad's three deputy mayors in a drive-by shooting. Roadside bombs continued their toll on U.S. forces, with two killed on Oct. 29.

Speaking at a Rose Garden press conference, President Bush said he suspected the attacks were the work of foreign terrorists "trying to create conditions of fear and retreat."

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"Iraq is dangerous, and it's dangerous because terrorists want us to leave," Mr. Bush said. "And we're not leaving."

The battle for Iraq is more difficult during the most sacred month in Islam. After the Oct. 27 bombings, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, 4th Infantry Division commander, told reporters his troops had been told to keep their distance from Ramadan celebrants. He said they should "not really be patrolling or be around those areas when they are in their time of-when they're conducting their prayers."

During war campaigns in Afghanistan and now Iraq, U.S. forces encountered public pressure to scale back military operations out of respect for Ramadan fasting. Conventional wisdom held that observant Muslims would be weakened and vulnerable during the month, when Muslims traditionally fast from dawn to dark, upholding one of the five pillars of Islam.

To remedy insensitivity-both real and imagined-Central Command ordered U.S. soldiers to receive Ramadan training. Workshops, led in individual units by military chaplains, took place in the weeks leading up to the holiday, which this year runs roughly from Oct. 27 to Nov. 25. A coalition spokesman in Baghdad told WORLD each unit could carry out the training on its own timetable but the order came with standardized guidelines and a pamphlet "with basic information on the religious observance."

The pamphlet, provided to WORLD by Central Command, states: "The Iraqi people are a good people living in a part of the world that is both a cradle of civilization and an area of almost constant strife." In the brochure an overview of Ramadan is followed by specific rules for soldiers. They are told not to eat or drink in front of fasting Muslims. "This is done out of politeness," the brochure reads. They are also warned off swearing, lewd gestures, smoking in front of Muslims, and displaying snacks during fasting hours. Hospital workers are directed to ask Muslims if they want to take medicine during their fast. After dark, the brochure warns, "do not be alarmed if you see large groups of people gathering in homes."

Both soldiers and chaplains WORLD contacted confirmed that they had been part of sensitivity training. Chaplains reported that they were given the freedom to prepare and teach the class without compromising their own beliefs. In some cases the mandatory class was the rare opportunity to present the contrast between Islam and Christianity to an entire unit. At the 21st Combat Support Hospital north of Baghdad, medical workers are feeding Iraqi prisoner-of-war patients a larger-than-usual meal around 5 a.m. so they can fast through the day. Other than that, one worker reported, the biggest challenge is not to eat in front of fasting Muslims.

But at the other end of the spectrum, on the streets, the orders for Ramadan observance have created a zone of safety-in the name of religious freedom -in which terrorists can operate.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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