* Transit authority relented after group filed lawsuit
* 53 pct of New Yorkers oppose mosque near Sept. 11 site
By Daniel Trotta
NEW YORK, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Anti-mosque advertisements depicting a plane about to crash into a flaming World Trade Center will soon be displayed on New York City buses after the transit authority relented and agreed to the ads.
The display asking "Why There?" is the latest attempt by opponents to block the proposed Cordoba House Islamic community center two blocks from the site of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, carried out by the militant Muslim group al Qaeda.
The ads will begin appearing on New York City buses as soon as next week after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) approved them on Monday, an MTA spokesman said.
The proposed Islamic center has generated emotional opposition from some New Yorkers who see the project as an offense to the approximately 2,750 people who died nearby when suicide hijackers slammed planes into the Twin Towers.
The controversy grew on Monday when the U.S. State Department confirmed it was paying for the for the imam behind the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to travel the Middle East as part of a U.S.-backed educational and cultural program, calling him a "distinguished cleric."
Fifty-three percent of New Yorkers oppose building the Islamic community center and prayer space next to "Ground Zero," according to a Marist Poll issued on Tuesday, versus 34 percent favor its development.
The same poll found Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a vocal supporter of the mosque, fell below a 50 percent approval rating for the first time in five years, though not necessarily because of the mosque issue.
"The mosque issue is not doing him any good, but those who are most opposed are Republicans and that's a group that has not deserted the mayor," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
Opponents of the mosque lost the most important battle last week when New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to grant an existing building at the site historic protection, allowing it to be destroyed so that the 13-story Muslim cultural complex can be built.
After the landmarks ruling, Bloomberg said "a handful of people ought to be ashamed of themselves" for opposing it.
"That sent a very clear message to individuals who take their marching orders from the Bloomberg administration. The MTA was simply acting in lock step," said David Yerushalmi, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative had bought advertising space on 26 buses for a month at a cost of $8,000, an MTA spokesman said.
On Friday the group sued in federal court, saying the transit authority was violating their free speech rights by denying their ads and by asking them to first remove the image of the plane and then to remove the flames from the artwork. The MTA agreed to run the original ad.
"While the MTA does not endorse the views expressed in this or other ads that appear on the transit system, the advertisement purchased by a group opposing a planned mosque near the World Trade Center was accepted today (Monday) after its review under MTA's advertising guidelines and governing legal standards," the MTA said in a statement. (Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Vicki Allen)