BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 30 — Words of fire shot out of the imam's mouth, hot enough to ignite the kindling in the hearts of the thousands of worshipers sitting before him.
"Our enemy is planning or conspiring and has plans to tear apart this country and destroy its unity," said the white-turbaned Sunni imam, Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai, at a recent sermon in the sprawling building once known as the Mother of All Battles Mosque.
"They have many plans to make conflict between Iraqis, between sects, between ethnic groups, between tribes, between students and teachers, between the military and civilians," he said, chopping his fist through the air. "They shake hands with the people of Falluja with their right hand, but they shoot them with their left hand."
The enemy is America, and since the uprising last month that message has been hammered into the heads of worshipers every week across the country, more intensely and with greater effect than ever before. These days, no political soapbox is more powerful than Friday Prayer, and clerics are taking advantage of that to spread hatred of the occupation and to increase their own popularity. The surge in influence — which has come about largely because of the absence of strong, charismatic politicians — is especially noticeable among Sunni clerics, who have traditionally held less sway over followers than Shiite clerics like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The rising power of Sunni religious leaders presents serious hindrances for the Bush administration as it tries to build legitimacy for an Iraqi government that it plans to endow with modest sovereignty on June 30.
The deeper one goes into the so-called Sunni Triangle, where supporters of Saddam Hussein's minority Sunni government remain defiant, the wider the clerics' appeal.
The mass uprising that began in April has discredited many secular politicians backed by the Americans. As Sunni and Shiite Arabs took up arms against the occupation, bringing crackdowns that left hundreds of Iraqis dead, people here turned more and more to men of the robe for guidance. That was fueled by the obvious inability of the American-picked Iraqi Governing Council to bring peace.
Only one party on the council, the Iraqi Islamic Party, showed any noticeable initiative in trying to negotiate a solution to the standoffs between militants and the American forces in Falluja. Given its Islamist character, though, that party is ultimately beholden to the clerics.
The biggest challenge now confronting the White House and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy assigned here, is to create an interim government that will be accepted by the Iraqis. But even as the White House tries to keep Iraq from becoming an Islamist state, it is the clerics, not technocrats or politicians like Iyad Alawi, approved by Mr. Brahimi as prime minister, who are winning legitimacy among Iraqis.
Mr. Brahimi is struggling to pick a secular Sunni politician to be president of the interim government, but it is unclear how much support such a person will have among Iraqis.
"I have more confidence in the religious leaders now," said Omar Farouk, 35, the owner of a convenience store in central Baghdad. "We are Muslims, and I believe religion is the truth. During this crisis, it was the religious leaders who tried to solve things."
Nadhim A. al-Jassour, a professor of international relations at the University of Baghdad, said clerics had become a "safety valve" for Iraq. "Who runs Iraqi society now?" he asked. "Who runs it during this political crisis? It's the religious leaders."
Many of those men, including the ones in the Muslim Clerics Association, the most powerful Sunni religious group, are virulently anti-American.
"The clerics have become prominent; the clerics have become just like saviors," said Muhammad Bashir al-Faydi, a spokesman for the association, which has a senior council of 50 members, many once supported by Mr. Hussein. "When people saw that their clerics didn't compromise with the occupiers and didn't shake hands with the occupiers as friends and refused to become involved in the political process, their confidence in the clerics grew."
The group has actually dived into politics, just not in a way the Americans would like. Although the interim government has yet to take shape fully, the association is already condemning it, which does not bode well for stability.
When the Marines began their invasion of Falluja on April 5, the association organized shipments of aid to the city. After insurgents took about 40 foreign civilians hostage, the clerics negotiated the release of most of them in a display of their influence. They have worked with the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Islamic Party in mediating between the Americans and the leaders of Falluja.
As the clerics' power has grown, the group has become bolder in its verbal attacks against the occupiers and has tried to present itself as the political wing of the armed resistance. During the siege of Falluja, its leaders appeared regularly on Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite television channel, to denounce the Americans. Mr. Samarrai, a prominent member, unleashes his fury in front of worshipers every Friday at the Umm al-Qura Mosque, where the association is based.
Many Iraqis have turned to the clerics because the Americans have failed to create a government with true authority, Professor Jassour said. In the absence of a legitimate governing body that can engender nationalism, Iraqis have thrown their allegiance to what he said were the traditional sources of power — tribal sheiks and religious leaders. The longer the country remains violent and poor, he said, the more people will gravitate to religion.
"After all of the tragedies in this country, citizens turned to subloyalties rather than loyalty to the state," he said. "It just got worse when the Americans made the huge mistake of destroying the Iraqi state and limiting the authority of the law."
Fractures in the insurgency could undermine the power of the clerics. On Thursday, Saadi Ahmad Zeidan, a member of the Muslim Clerics Association from the Ramadia area, was assassinated. Guerrilla fighters had put his name on a list of Iraqis to be killed; the men were put on the list possibly because they were seen as too moderate or because of internal politics among resistance groups.
At his sermon last Friday, Mr. Samarrai condemned the killing and called for unity among those who opposed the occupation.
"We ask Muslims not to take part in illicit fighting because it will open the door to evil and usher in the wind of strife between Muslims," he said.
Rivalries have emerged among groups of Sunni clerics. The State Council for the Sunnis, founded in December by clerics of the hard-line Salafiya sect, competes with the Muslim Clerics Association for influence. During the crisis in Falluja, the council has tried to get involved in negotiations, only to be shut out. But its leaders say there is no doubt clerics are coming out on top in the new society.
"The Islamic movement is now replacing the national secular movement," said Sheik Mahmood al-Mashhadany, a founding member. "The secular leaders have done nothing. Now the young men want the Islamists. Now you have no choice."