In Iraq, Reprisals Embolden Militias
Saturday, November 25, 2006
BAGHDAD, Nov. 24 -- In a wave of reprisal killings, Shiite militiamen attacked Sunni mosques in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq on Friday, defying a government curfew and propelling the country further toward full-blown civil war.
The exacting of revenge for the deaths of more than 200 Shiites on Thursday came as powerful politicians linked to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened to pull out of Iraq's coalition government if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attends a scheduled meeting with President Bush next week in Amman, Jordan. A boycott by loyalists of Sadr, on whom Maliki relies for political support, could upend Iraq's fragile unity government.
Friday's attacks illustrated Iraqi security forces' inability to rein in violence, at a time when U.S. leaders want them to take greater responsibility for the country's security, a vital benchmark for any strategy to withdraw U.S. troops.
In the mixed Hurriyah neighborhood, Shiite militiamen torched at least five Sunni mosques on Islam's holiest prayer day, police and residents reported. Other mosques were attacked by gunmen spraying bullets from the rooftops of nearby houses, witnesses said.
In one mosque, militiamen detonated a cooking gas cylinder. In another, they declared that it was now a husseiniya, a Shiite mosque, and posted pictures of Sadr, whose stronghold of Sadr City was attacked Thursday. At least 18 people were killed Friday and 24 injured in the mosque attacks in Hurriyah, said Adil Mahmoud, a physician from al-Nouman Hospital in the nearby Adhamiyah neighborhood.
"They started attacking with grenades and RPGs," said Abu Abdallah, the imam at one of the attacked mosques, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. "Then shooting started from nearby houses. Then they entered and burned the mosque before they left." Abdallah, interviewed by telephone, asked that his mosque not be named. "I might be killed," he said.
In the Ghazaliya neighborhood, at least eight mortar shells hit a mosque run by the Association of Muslim Scholars, one of the most outspoken defenders of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The house of worship is one of Baghdad's best-known.
Northeast of the capital, Shiite gunmen in Baqubah opened fire at a Sunni mosque during Friday prayers, killing a mosque guard, said imam Osama al-Ani. Near the northern city of Kirkuk, a roadside bomb exploded in front of one of the biggest Sunni mosques in the area, injuring five people and damaging the building, according to police.
Meanwhile, in the northwestern city of Tall Afar, two bombs exploded near a car dealership, killing 22 people and wounding more than 40 others, police said.
The scale of Friday's revenge attacks was smaller than the wave of killings by Shiite militiamen after the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra in February. That bombing triggered cycles of retaliation that further ruptured the bonds between Iraq's two major sects.
U.S. troops bolstered their patrols on Friday, flying helicopters over Sadr City and operating checkpoints. One helicopter destroyed a rocket launcher manned by a Shiite crew that had fired six rockets into the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah, near the Abu Hanifa mosque, one of the most revered Sunni shrines in Baghdad, the military said.
Friday's attacks unfolded in the aftermath of the bombs, mortars and missiles that hit Sadr City on Thursday in the deadliest single assault on Iraqi civilians since the U.S.-led invasion began. The death toll in those attacks rose to more than 200. Thousands of mourners, flanked by minivans carrying wooden coffins, paraded solemnly through Sadr City on Friday, paying last respects before the dead were taken to the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf for burial.