BAGHDAD, Iraq — Even in a country wracked by three wars and 30 years of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, the photographs of a cheering mob beating the charred bodies of four American civilians and dragging them through the streets of Fallujah shocked many Iraqis.
"It was completely un-Islamic to treat the bodies in that way. The people who did this were acting like animals," said Ali Khaled, 29, an electrician who sat drinking tea with four friends at a coffee house in Baghdad’s old quarter Thursday afternoon. "They committed an unforgivable sin, and they will be punished by God."
Wednesday’s ambush of the four contractors — and Iraqis mutilating their bodies and hanging two of them from a bridge — in the restive city of Fallujah was the talk of Baghdad’s coffee houses, kebab joints and mosques. The attack did not receive much coverage in the Iraqi press, but most Iraqis had seen footage on Arab satellite stations of a crowd cheering and dancing around the burned corpses.
As Khaled and other friends debated the fate that would befall those who desecrated the bodies, Karim Nasser sat silently puffing on a water pipe. About 10 minutes later, he broke in with an observation that silenced the group: "This was similar to what happened to Imam Hussein in Karbala," said Nasser, 31, an unemployed engineer.
It was a comment loaded with historical and religious symbolism, evoking Shiite Islam’s most traumatic chapter. Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of Shiism’s founding figures, was killed along with a small band of followers in the year 680 in the Iraqi city of Karbala. Hussein was beheaded and his body was mutilated.
The Sunni Muslim soldiers who cut off Hussein’s head brought it back to Damascus, the seat of a rival Muslim leader. It was the defining event in the split between Sunnis and Shiites, a division that still plays out today in Iraq, where the majority Shiites have been ruled by a Sunni minority for more than 70 years.
That an Iraqi Shiite would compare the death of Imam Hussein to the killing of four American civilians in Fallujah, a Sunni dominated city, is remarkable.
"Of course, Imam Hussein suffered more," Nasser added quickly.
Several Iraqi Sunnis interviewed Thursday also expressed shock at the killings, but not as strongly as Shiites. Sunnis spoke of the U.S. crackdown on insurgents in and around Fallujah, where there have been more attacks against U.S. forces than anywhere else in Iraq. Fallujah, a city of 500,000 people about 30 miles west of Baghdad, was well-treated by Hussein because it is dominated by Sunnis, like his Baathist regime.
"What the people did to those bodies was not excusable in any way," said Khalil Hassan, 69, a retired teacher and a Sunni, as a puff of white smoke rose over his head. "But the Americans have also committed crimes against people in Fallujah and other Iraqi towns."
Some members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which was largely silent on the day of the attack, also made public statements Thursday.
"In 1958, July 14th, some members of the royal family were killed and mutilated. Iraqis were ashamed for decades at this barbaric event," Samir Sumaidi told reporters. "Now after this, I feel that again Iraqis will hang their heads in shame."