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Shiites Renaming Baghdad Streets

There's no Yasser Arafat Street in Baghdad anymore, and a main thoroughfare along the Tigris River once named for an 8th century poet has a new name as well.

Both have been renamed for Shiite Muslim (search) imams whose memory had no place in Saddam Hussein's rule, when Sunni Muslims dominated despite being a minority in Iraq.

In midnight operations underlining the newfound strength of Iraq's long-oppressed religious majority, Shiite leaders are whitewashing the names of many of Baghdad's bridges, streets and neighborhoods, replacing the hallmarks of the old regime with scrawled titles rich in symbolism for Shiites.

The obvious tributes to Saddam's megalomaniacal 23-year-rule went long ago. Signs at Saddam International Airport, Saddam Bridge, Saddam University, Saddam Hospital and the Saddam City neighborhood came down as the capital fell in April, along with countless statues and posters of the dictator.

Less dramatic changes in recent weeks illustrate the shifting political tide in Iraq, where Shiites make up 60 percent of the population but have never ruled.

"These old names did not reflect the will of the people," said Abu Sajjid, guardian of a Shiite shrine just off the newly renamed Imam al-Mehdi (search) Street.

Most Shiites consider al-Mehdi, who was born in 869, to be Islam's 12th and last imam, and believe he will return.

Saddam had named the street for Yasser Arafat when Israel put the Palestinian leader under virtual house arrest in 2000. Signs bearing Arafat's name disappeared overnight in late June, and new ones with the imam's name went up.

Many of Iraq's Shiite Muslims resent Arafat for backing Saddam in the 1991 Gulf War and for accepting Iraqi aid since then, even while Iraq suffered under U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait.

There also was resentment over special treatment Saddam granted Palestinian refugees in Iraq, and the Iraqi dictator contributed to funds that paid compensation to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

"Yasser Arafat (search) is the same as Saddam. He was not honest with his people, and he created a single-party system to cripple the freedom of his people," Sajjid said. "They are two sides of the same coin."

Among other Baghdad sites renamed:

— Al-Kaed Bridge (The Leader Bridge), meaning Saddam. It's now called Al-Hussein Bridge, after Imam Hussein (search), the grandson of Islam's Prophet Muhammad and one of Shi'ism's greatest martyrs.

— Abu Nawas Street, for an 8th century poet. It's now Safinat al-Najat Street, which means Salvation Ship, a mainly Shiite reference.

— Al-Ameen District. It's now known as Al-Murthadha District, after Ali Murthadha, the first Shiite imam.

— Mohammed al-Dura (search) Street, a long thoroughfare Saddam named for a 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed as he huddled in his father's arms during a gunbattle between Israeli troops and militants in 2000. No new name has been selected, but signs with the boy's name were painted over or removed.

Siham Hatab, deputy chief of Baghdad's recently installed city council, said she will work to have the name changes declared official.

"After the fall of the ousted regime, people felt it would be unsuitable to leave the names, as they are symbols of the humiliation and injustice we endured," Hatab said.

Others are not so happy.

The owner of a men's clothing shop on what was Yasser Arafat Street said he was not pleased with the new name. Though a Shiite himself, he worries the new name will cause frictions with his Sunni neighbors.

"These names should not just be chosen randomly. They should reflect the will of all the people," said Nadham, who spoke on condition his last name not be used, citing concern over retribution.

Deputy Mayor Faris al-A'asem is calling for restraint, saying the midnight name changes are wreaking havoc, even if done with the best of intentions.

"The renaming of some streets is a spontaneous act taken by ordinary people, but in the end it should be coordinated by the government or it will lead to chaos," he said. "What if they give a street name to a pious imam, even though it has bars or nightclubs on it? That would not do at all."