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.
On Friday, a car bomb went off near a Sunni mosque in Samarra and killed two people, one of them the mosque's imam, the Associated Press reported. Another car bomb in Samarra targeted police but killed a civilian, the AP said.
In Baghdad, attackers tried to set fire to a market in the troubled southern neighborhood of Dora. A gun battle broke out when police attempted to stop them, and two police officers and one gunmen were killed, said Maj. Mohammed Sultan, a duty officer in a police control center.
A car bomb at a market in a Shiite neighborhood of eastern Baghdad killed four, Sultan said.
In Fallujah, 35 miles west of the capital, 11 Iraqis died when a suicide attacker blew up his car at a checkpoint manned by U.S. and Iraqi forces, police Lt. Jamal Khalil Dulaimi said. Three of the dead were Iraqi policemen. There was no word of any U.S. casualties.
An anchorman with Baghdad TV, Munsuf Abdallah al-Khaldi, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen while driving from the capital, the Committee to Protect Journalists said late Thursday.
Meanwhile, a date appeared to have been set for the opening of Iraq's new parliament, so far delayed by a bitter dispute over Jafari's reappointment. President Jalal Talabani issued a decree Friday ordering parliament to hold its first session March 19, Jafari's aides said.
Jafari, a Shiite, is opposed by many, even within his own Shiite-Kurdish coalition, but has the backing of Moqtada al-Sadr, an increasingly influential Shiite cleric and militia leader.
In Najaf, a Shiite holy city about 90 miles south of Baghdad, a cleric from Iraq's leading Shiite religious party expressed impatience with Jafari and with the political wrangling. He suggested Shiite religious leaders -- backed by millions of faithful and thousands of armed supporters -- might intervene if matters dragged on.
"If you are not able to form the government, then the Shiite holy men will have another opinion," Sadrueen Qabanchi, a senior member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told a congregation. The Supreme Council leads Iraq's government.
Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region of Iraq, said in a statement that with the dispute over Jafari still unresolved, the country was in political crisis.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, in an interview with Time magazine, suggested a leadership summit away from Baghdad to force the country's factional leaders to come to terms. Barzani offered to host a summit in Irbil, his factional capital in the north.
Sadr, in an interview on al-Iraqiya television, seemed to hold out hope of reconciliation with political parties of fellow Shiites and suggested he shared no common ground with Sunni hard-liners.
"I have not heard them lately asking for an end to the occupation or asking for a timetable for withdrawal of occupation troops," Sadr said, ticking off demands that he has made for nearly three years. "Nor have I heard them demanding the execution of Saddam Hussein or speeding up the trial. I have not heard them very clearly condemning the Sunni extremists."
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff members contributed to this report.