By John Ward Anderson and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 6, 2006
BAGHDAD, March 5 -- Unidentified gunmen attacked at least three mosques in Iraq over the weekend, killing four people and prolonging a nearly two-week spate of sectarian violence that has deepened animosity between the country's Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Politicians continued their efforts Sunday to form a national unity government that they hope can help heal the rifts and end an epidemic of attacks that has left more than 1,000 dead since the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad, on Feb. 22. But a key Shiite religious leader, the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, indicated that he would not abandon his candidate for prime minister, interim Prime Minster Ibrahim al-Jafari, as Sunni Muslim and Kurdish parties are demanding.
Officials offered confused accounts of an attack Sunday morning on al-Rahman Sunni mosque in Baghdad's Jihad neighborhood, an area in the western part of the capital that is considered a hotbed of insurgent activity.
The Associated Press initially reported that police said the mosque was attacked by commandos from the country's Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, and that three people, including the imam and his son, were killed.
The news service later reported that police had "changed their account," and that the mosque was attacked by "several masked gunmen." The later version quoted the imam as saying that "a gang using 10 cars stormed the mosque." The imam added that the men were dressed in military uniforms and arrived in cars similar to those used by the Interior Ministry.
An official at the Interior Ministry, Maj. Mohammed Sultan, said in an interview that the attackers were "insurgents."
Residents of the area, who declined to be quoted by name, told The Washington Post that several SUVs with tinted windows arrived at the mosque shortly after midnight Saturday and that gunmen killed two men who were guarding the building. Six windows of the mosque were shattered in the gunfire, and its outside walls were riddled with bullet holes.
Sunni leaders have for months alleged that they and their mosques are being targeted by Interior Ministry death squads. Ministry officials deny the charge.
Police and Interior Ministry officials said two mosques in the city of Kirkuk, 140 miles north of Baghdad, were attacked Saturday night. Gunmen in a red car fired on a funeral at the Shiite Turkman Ahl al-Bayat mosque, killing two people and wounding three, according to Lt. Col. Taha Salah Aldin, a senior police official. Around the same time, gunmen sprayed a Sunni mosque with bullets, he said, but no one was injured.
In the holy city of Najaf, 90 miles south of the capital, a team of senior Kurdish politicians led by Planning Minister Barham Salih met with Sadr, who has been a leading opponent of the U.S. occupation, to press the case for dropping Jafari as the Shiite alliance's nominee for prime minister in the next government.
The Shiite United Iraqi Alliance won 130 seats, the largest bloc, in the Dec. 15 elections, and nominated Jafari, who has been interim prime minister for about a year, to continue in the post permanently when the new government is formed. Jafari won his nomination by one vote, largely because of Sadr's backing, but he has failed to win the support of other factions.
Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties have launched a campaign to persuade the Shiite alliance to reject Jafari, complaining that he has done little to address Iraq's ills, particularly the country's deteriorating security situation.
But Salih told reporters after meeting with the cleric that "the view of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr group is that Dr. Jafari is the legitimate candidate of the Iraqi Alliance, and they will stick with him."
Earlier, Salih and his entourage met with the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, considered the country's most influential religious leader, to make the case for withdrawing Jafari's nomination.
"We view the present stage as one for building the new modern state of Iraq, which calls for national cohesion and a government of national unity," Salih said in a statement after his meeting. "Our message is clear: We want the alliance to respect our options and feelings, and come up with a candidate that enjoys the support of all essential parties."
Sarhan reported from Najaf.