By Jonathan Finer and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 24, 2006
BAGHDAD, Feb. 23 -- Clashes between rival Muslim sects and other violence Thursday killed more than 100 people across Iraq, including several Sunni Arab clerics, and left dozens of Sunni mosques in ruins or occupied by Shiite Muslim militias, a day after bombers destroyed a revered Shiite shrine.
In the day's bloodiest attack, 47 people were forced from their vehicles by gunmen, who shot them dead and dumped their bodies in a ditch near Baqubah, north of Baghdad. The victims included Sunnis and Shiites, many of whom were on their way to attend a protest against Wednesday's bombing in the city of Samarra, according to Gen. Amir al-Jubouri, police chief in Diyala province.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of seven American soldiers in two roadside bombings Wednesday near the northern town of Hawijah.
The surge in violence, sparked by the destruction of Samarra's gold-domed Askariya shrine, comes at a time of political transition and uncertainty, with leaders of Iraq's largest factions mired in negotiations over the composition of the next government. Prospects for a political resolution suffered Thursday when Sunni Arab political leaders abruptly withdrew from talks with Iraq's Shiite ruling parties, blaming the police and army for failing to prevent retaliatory attacks -- and, in some cases, for participating in them.
Several clerics, politicians and other Iraqis said Thursday that relations between Sunnis and Shiites were at their most tense since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Long ruled by its Sunni Arab minority, Iraq has experienced a fundamental political shift since the fall of President Saddam Hussein. The Shiite majority, repressed during Hussein's rule, has won the most votes in two successive elections, giving Shiite parties control of the country's security forces. At the same time, Sunni Arabs have bridled at their loss of influence and privilege-- initially rejecting the new political system but recently moving to join the process. Sectarian violence, however, has flared sporadically since Hussein's fall, and intensified since the middle of last year.
"Civil war will become a reality if we allow the extremists on both sides to take the reins in their hands and direct the others," said Husham Hussein, 29, a Sunni who works as a trader in the Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour. "But I hope we will have enough sense to avert that."
"The young people are very uptight. There is a fire smoldering in them under the ash," said Abbas Ridha al-Zubaidi, imam of a Shiite mosque in Karrada, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. He said that after the Samarra bombing, a group of youths from the neighborhood came to him and asked if they could attack nearby Sunni mosques. "I told them it was forbidden," he said.
Late Thursday night, the government announced a curfew in four provinces -- Baghdad, Salahuddin, Diyala and Babil -- until at least 4 p.m. Friday, banning people from the streets on a day when millions nationwide attend weekly prayer services. A curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. was already in effect nationwide.
Mixed among pleas for calm by religious and political leaders were inflammatory accusations and thinly veiled calls to arms. "The situation is still intense, especially after the miserable and ashamed reaction of the government's security forces, which were as usual either audience or participant," said Tariq al-Hashimi, a leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, a coalition of Sunni parties.
The Sunni bloc, which said more than 100 mosques had been damaged in attacks or occupied by Shiite Muslim militias after the Samarra bombing, declined to attend talks aimed at stopping the violence scheduled for Thursday morning and led by President Jalal Talabani. The Sunnis angered participants by sending a list of written demands that they said must be met before they would return to negotiations on a new government, according to officials in attendance.
Sunni leaders attributed the reprisals to the Mahdi Army, a militia led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which took to the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday. Sadr's black-clad followers were said to be occupying Sunni mosques in Baghdad and several southern cities.
"I call on Sayyid Moqtada Sadr and remind him what happened to the blood of both of us in Fallujah, Karbala and Najaf" during Sunni and Shiite uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, said Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a leading Sunni religious group, using a Muslim title of respect. The association said 10 of its imams had been killed in the recent violence. "We demand Sayyid Sadr to intervene."
On Thursday, Sadr called on followers to continue demonstrating and said the Mahdi Army would "protect the holy sites in Samarra in specific and the mosques and shrines in general."
Thousands attended peaceful demonstrations against the Samarra bombing in the Shiite-majority southern city of Najaf and the diverse northern city of Kirkuk. Protesters also gathered in Samarra, where police on Thursday found the bodies of three Iraqi journalists. Atwar Bahjat, a correspondent with al-Arabiya television, and two employees of al-Wasan television were abducted a day earlier while covering the aftermath of the bombing, according to al-Arabiya reporter Ahmed al-Salih, who managed to evade the kidnappers.
Baghdad was largely quiet on the first day of a government-declared mourning period to mark the destruction of the Samarra shrine, with shops shuttered and only light traffic on the streets. Several residents said they were stocking up on food and other supplies, and few women or children were seen outdoors -- often a sign that people are braced for violence.
The capital's main morgue overflowed with more than 80 bodies strewn throughout rooms and corridors, after a night in which bands of roving gunmen were seen in several neighborhoods, some of whose residents reported taking up arms to defend their homes and religious centers.
Scars of the retaliatory violence were widely evident. In Idreesi, east of downtown, a blackened Sunni mosque, its windows shattered, was closed off behind a locked iron gate. Campaign posters for a Sunni politician, Adnan al-Dulaimi, had been torn from the outer wall. Men had shot at the building with rifles Wednesday afternoon, residents said, before returning with drums of gasoline and setting them ablaze.
"I think the worst has passed," said a Western diplomat in Baghdad, noting that there were fewer reports of violence during daylight hours Thursday. "But I do not say that we will never have problems like this again."
A U.S. military spokesman stressed that Iraqi security forces were leading efforts to suppress the violence. "We're not seeing civil war ignited in Iraq," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch. "We're seeing a competent, capable Iraqi government using their security forces to calm the storm."
Iraqi security officials told news services that as many as 10 arrests had been made related to the Samarra bombing. National security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie suggested in televised interviews that the attack bore the hallmark of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The mujaheddin shura, a council of insurgent groups including al-Qaeda in Iraq, issued a statement blaming the attack on the Iraqi government in "coordination" with Iran. The council said it was preparing a "shocking" response to the "conspiracy."
Correspondents Ellen Knickmeyer and Nelson Hernandez and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, Hassan Shammari in Baqubah and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.