By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 26, 2006
BAGHDAD, Feb. 25 -- Until four days ago, the building was a Sunni Muslim mosque called al-Hassan, located on a quiet side street amid a clutch of stone homes with ragged yards in the northeast Baghdad neighborhood of Mustansiriya.
But in the chaos that followed the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra north of Baghdad on Wednesday, Shiite residents of the diverse community and members of a feared militia stormed the mosque and adorned it with black, red and green Shiite prayer flags. They closed the street to vehicles and renamed the mosque after Imam Ali, who was the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and is particularly revered by Shiites.
"It was a Shiite mosque before the tyrant Saddam Hussein took it for Sunnis. We had the chance and we took it for its rightful owners," said Haidar Abbas, 25, part of a force of about two dozen guarding the mosque Saturday afternoon. Several carried AK-47 assault rifles as they walked the perimeter, and neighborhood residents said their black attire and police-issue flak vests were hallmarks of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
While Baghdad and three other Iraqi provinces are supposed to be under security lockdown, Shiite militias are roaming the streets among and alongside Iraq's police and army, attacking and occupying dozens of Sunni mosques -- and reflagging some as Shiite -- and detaining and killing worshipers. Residents of several Baghdad neighborhoods have reported seeing pickup trucks barreling through otherwise empty streets, bearing militia members armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Ostensibly outlawed, private militias maintain thousands of foot soldiers across Iraq. Members of two Shiite militias -- the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, which is affiliated with the country's dominant Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- dominate the ranks of Iraq's police and army. Ethnic Kurds also have a huge armed force whose members, called pesh merga , are arrayed throughout the Kurdish-populated north. But Sunni Arabs, who make up the bulk of Iraq's insurgency, lack their own formal militia and have blamed the Shiite militias for recent kidnappings and assassinations, allegedly committed by men wearing uniforms of the security forces.
This week, U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledged the militia problem -- which Sunnis have long pointed to as the most likely trigger of a civil war -- but seem unable to do much about it. In the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, Sunnis said more than 100 of their mosques were attacked; both the U.S. military and Iraqi government assert that fewer assaults took place.
When Sunni leaders also said that the Mahdi Army was occupying dozens of mosques, Iraq's security council considered issuing a decree demanding their evacuation, but abandoned the idea out of concern that it could escalate the fighting.
"The government of Iraq has decided that they won't accept militias on the street," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a U.S. military spokesman, said at a briefing Thursday. "The government of Iraq has decided that the Mahdi militia is out there, and shouldn't be out there."
Since leading two armed uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, Sadr has slowly embraced political rather than violent means to press his long-standing resistance to the U.S. presence here. He and his deputies have said they deployed the Mahdi Army after the bombing of Samarra's Askariya shrine to "secure" other sacred places from further attack.
"Sayyid Moqtada Sadr ordered the Mahdi Army to protect all the holy sites, including mosques of Sunnis and Shiites and even churches," said Sahib al-Amiri, an aide to Sadr in the southern city of Najaf. "To obey his orders, the Mahdi Army hurried to protect the mosques, but when they arrived, the guards of the mosques clashed with the Mahdi Army."
Amiri also confirmed reports by Sunni leaders that the militia has taken "a number of detainees."
"These are criminals and will be handed over to the government and justice," Amiri said. "These criminals have confessed they have carried out operations against Iraqis."
But Sunnis say that ordinary worshipers have been targeted, including some who were taken from mosques and later found dead. As part of the widespread campaign of intimidation since the Samarra attack, gunmen posted banners on the walls of the Sunnis' Haj Seidan mosque in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Tobji, where sectarian violence has been escalating for months.
"Closed for three days in condemnation for the attack," the banners read. Word was spread among residents that anyone defying the ban would be killed.
To ignite a civil war, the bombers who attacked the shrine "decided to provoke Shiites against Sunnis," said Dawood Taha Ibrahim, 43, a grocer who lives in the neighborhood and prays at Haj Seidan.
Determined to pray together, but fearing an attack if they violate the banner's decree, fellow Sunnis sought help from the Shiite commander of a Iraq army unit based nearby, Ibrahim said. The commander agreed to remove the signs after Sunnis posted signs of their own that denounced the attack on the Samarra mosque as a "cowardly act."
"They don't want Iraq to have rest," Ibrahim said. "We just want Iraq to settle down. We would do whatever it takes."
As dusk fell Saturday, the Shiite gunmen standing guard at the mosque in Mustansiriya said they had seized it in part because the Sunni imam there had incited strife in the neighborhood by preaching against the government.
"He provoked people," said Sayid Ahmed Haidari, 40, a laborer who wore a faded brown sport coat over his black T-shirt. "Even the Sunni residents didn't like that."
Haidari said the mosque's new occupants had maintained good relations with local Sunnis. "They didn't fight back when we came, thank God," he said. "We don't have any problems with them. They can come to pray every day if they want."
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.