By Joshua Partlow and Saad al-Izzi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
BAGHDAD, July 11 -- The words they have come to fear thundered out from the mosque loudspeakers as the sun sank over Baghdad: "God is great! God is great! God is great!"
Just one day earlier, Sunni Arab sheiks in Amiriyah, one of Baghdad's most embattled neighborhoods, had gone door to door recruiting volunteers who would be willing to fight against Shiite militias. The mosque's signal Tuesday night meant the time to fight was now.
According to witnesses and a Washington Post special correspondent, carloads of men in tracksuits, suspected by residents to be members of the powerful Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army, pulled up outside the Malouki mosque and fired rocket-propelled grenades at the house of worship. During the firefight, a bullet pierced the shoulder of a mosque guard. Cars were gutted and burned. Residents said they did not know how many people died.
Gunfire clattered through the hot evening air; children bawled at the sound. In one home, a wife locked the front door and pleaded with her husband not to leave the house. A former army officer barked orders to neighbors who assembled to mount a defense: You go up to the rooftops. You guard the street corners.
Saleh Muhammed, an Amiriyah resident, told a Post special correspondent that he dialed 130 into his cellphone, Baghdad's emergency number. "The Mahdi Army has attacked Amiriyah," he told the Interior Ministry dispatcher.
"The Mahdi Army are not terrorists like you," said the dispatcher at the ministry, which is controlled by a Shiite party and operates closely with militias. "They are people doing their duty. And how could you know that they are the Mahdi Army? Is it written on their foreheads?" He hung up the phone.
Violence around Iraq claimed the lives of at least 50 people on Tuesday, as politicians across the country's political spectrum said months of sectarian killing had turned into civil war.
About 200 yards outside civilian entrances to the heavily guarded Green Zone government compound in Baghdad, two suicide bombers blew themselves up, followed shortly by an explosion of another bomb, killing 15 civilians and an Iraqi police officer and wounding four other people, according to a U.S. military spokesman. The bombers struck just before 11 a.m., as Iraq's parliament convened in the conference center well behind the concrete blast walls. The explosions crashed through two restaurants, scattering shards of glass and other debris onto the ground.
"The scene was terrifying and tragic," said Abdul Rahman, 38, the owner of a mini market near the Green Zone. "After I saw this terrible incident, I closed my shop and I went home."
Earlier in the morning, in the violent Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad, gunmen stopped a minibus carrying a Shiite family home from a burial in the holy city of Najaf. They forced the family members to get out of the bus and shot all eight, said Maj. Gen. Saeed Mahmood al-Sheik of the Interior Ministry.
A car bomb also exploded in Karrada, a busy commercial neighborhood in central Baghdad, killing two people and injuring five, police said.
The current spate of sectarian killing began Sunday, when police said Shiite militiamen stormed a largely Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad and killed more than 50 people, convincing many Iraqis that the violence had reached unprecedented intensity. Tuesday's parliament meeting focused on how to slow the runaway killing, and Sunni legislators who have been boycotting to protest the kidnapping of a colleague announced they would return Wednesday to show unity.
"Certainly, what is happening is the start of the civil war. It is a dangerous situation in which the people are involved now and are being dragged into massive killings," said Haidar al-Ibadi, a Shiite legislator.
Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading Sunni legislator, said the sectarian rivalries are tearing apart the seven-week-old government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "This is a hopeless government. It has not done one good thing since it started, and things are getting worse, not better," he said. "The parliament cannot reach practical solutions because their minds are concerned only with their sect and not the interests of the nation. It looks like this government is going to collapse very soon."
Mutlak described Sunday's slaughter of Sunnis in the neighborhood of al-Jihad as "the start of a civil war" and said rogue militiamen within the Mahdi Army -- "thieves and idiots and children" -- were responsible.
The Mahdi Army, controlled by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has denied participating in the killings.
Also on Tuesday, the U.S. military said a video released by an insurgent group linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq appeared to show the mutilated bodies of two American soldiers captured by insurgents last month and killed near the town of Yusufiyah.
The hand-held video shows two bodies -- one decapitated, the other face down on the ground as someone steps on his head. The video was posted on an insurgent Web site, accompanied by a statement from the Mujaheddin al-Shura Council, a collection of several insurgent groups including al-Qaeda in Iraq, asserting that the soldiers were killed in retaliation for the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and the killings of three members of her family, allegedly by U.S. soldiers from the same unit in the nearby town of Mahmudiyah.
The statement said the soldiers were killed as revenge. But the mayor of Mahmudiyah has said he doubts the killing of the two soldiers was retribution, because the rape and killings of the Iraqis were initially reported as an insurgent attack and the possible involvement of U.S. troops did not emerge until after the two Americans had been kidnapped and slain.
U.S. military officials in Baghdad say they have found no connection between the two incidents. The military said in a statement that it "condemns the release of the video in the strongest of terms; it demonstrates the barbaric and brutal nature of the terrorists and their complete disregard for human life."
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti, Naseer Nouri and Naseer Mehdawi and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.