Iraqis Split Over End of Ramadan

For Sunni Muslims, it began Monday. Some Shiites started celebrating Tuesday. Others will wait until Wednesday.

In Iraq, the three-day Islamic festival Eid al-Fitr (search), which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan (search), reflects the country's fragmented society.

The holiday is supposed to begin the day after the sighting of the new lunar crescent, an event eagerly awaited by Muslims after a month of abstaining from food, drink, cigarettes and sex during the day.

As with Christmas in Christian countries, the Eid is a time when little — if any — work is done. With several groups in Iraq marking the holiday on different days, the no-work period is dragging out even longer than usual this year.

During the 23-year rule of Saddam Hussein, the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs used to determine when the feast should begin. The ministry was run by Saddam's fellow Sunnis.

However, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (search) didn't name a new religious affairs ministry, fearing it would only worsen the rivalry between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis over which group should be in charge.

So there was no universally recognized authority to declare when Ramadan ends and Eid al-Fitr (pronounced EED al-FIT-ur) begins. Most Muslim countries began the three-day festival on Monday.

Sunni clerics announced the Monday start date on Iraqi media the night before. But the Shiites, who form about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, do not follow the guidance of the Sunni religious establishment.

Some Shiite clerics ruled that the Eid began Tuesday. However, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, the Shiite cleric with the largest following in Iraq, said it starts Wednesday.

"Shiites follow several spiritual leaders," said Kamal al-Araji, an aide of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "Every leader tells his followers when the Eid is."

Under Saddam, some Shiite clerics would quietly tell their followers what day to mark the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the Eid, regardless of what the Sunnis at the religious ministry had to say.

However, schools, government offices and most private businesses followed the ministry's guidelines.

"We are used to this matter," said Sheik Moayad al-Azami, imam of Baghdad's Abu Hanifa Mosque, the Sunnis' most important shrine in Iraq. "We always used to ... mark the Eid and our Shiite brothers would stop fasting a day later."

Al-Azami said it is enough for one Sunni to see the crescent in order for the feast to begin. For Shiites, a large number must see the crescent "and this only happens on the second or third day of the moon. This is very normal."