Blasts Flare in Iraq As Curfews Ease

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 11, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 10 -- Under the guard of machine guns mounted in white police pickup trucks, sparse crowds returned to Baghdad's mosques Friday as curfews imposed to stem recent sectarian bloodletting eased. In Shiite and Sunni mosques, some clerics called for forgiveness, while others wept bitterly over losses in the conflict or warned of more to come.

Bombings claimed at least 19 lives around Iraq, including that of a Sunni preacher killed when a car bomber drove up to a mosque in the city of Samarra, where Iraq's worst burst of sectarian violence since the U.S. invasion began Feb. 22 with the bombing of a Shiite shrine. Another three people -- two police officers and one gunman -- died Friday in a gun battle that raged in a southern Baghdad market.

"I call on all Iraqis to stop the bloodshed, to stop killing people for no reason," cleric Mahmoud Sumaidaie said at one of Baghdad's most prominent Sunni mosques, Um al-Qura.

After two weeks of attacks, many of them centered on Sunni mosques, a few hundred men knelt for prayer in the giant, carpeted Um al-Qura, far fewer than the 1,000-plus worshipers who normally spill into its marbled arcades. "This is the worst kind of crisis that we have been made to endure," Sumaidaie said.

"It is a war against the Shiite!" a leading Shiite cleric in Baghdad, Jalal Sagheer, said across the city at the Buratha mosque. As at Um al-Qura, a police pickup with mounted machine gun stood guard outside. Security guards searched each car for bombs and frisked each worshiper.

Sagheer broke into tears as he spoke of the Feb. 22 bombing that destroyed the dome of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad. He called the day "Black Wednesday."

Shiite worshipers wept, too.

Sagheer also struck out at news media, accusing them at length of focusing on Sunni deaths in Iraq's sectarian violence. "Why do the media give this sectarian slant to one Sunni and they do not do that with 10 Shiites?" the Shiite cleric said. He faulted Arabic television in particular.

In Tikrit, a Sunni stronghold near Saddam Hussein's home village, cleric Yahya Attawi told worshipers that Iran -- a Shiite theocracy friendly to Iraq's Shiite political parties -- was to blame for the surge in sectarian killing.

"Be on alert for the Iranian tide, which is more dangerous than the American occupation, because they are threatening our religion and our doctrine," Attawi said to his Sunni congregation.

Dozens of mosques have been bombed, attacked or occupied since the bombing of the Samarra shrine. Authorities had imposed a daytime curfew each Friday afterward, fearing attacks or tensions on the Islamic day of prayer would inflame the violence. This week authorities lifted the Friday curfew, although many in Iraq's capital stayed home, assuming it still held or fearing violence.

Violence since the shrine bombing has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, according to Iraqi and international officials monitoring the deaths, with much of the killing blamed on Shiite militias unleashed after the attack. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari's office puts the toll above 500.

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