By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
Later, in an address after the midday prayer, members of Sadr's political party denounced the U.S. military, saying its presence was the reason for Iraq's escalating violence. They demanded a U.S. withdrawal or, at least, a timetable for the troops to leave, a demand echoed by Sadr in his Friday sermon at his mosque in the southern city of Kufa.
In previous periods of tension, Sadr loyalists have threatened to walk out of the government. Still, the current climate is unlike anything Iraq has experienced since the invasion. The attacks on Sadr City appeared to embolden Sadr and his followers as they try to capitalize on Thursday's carnage, which Shiite leaders, including Maliki, have blamed on Sunni Arab insurgents.
As long as such attacks continue, and as long as Iraqi security forces are ineffective in providing security, Sadr can justify the existence of his Mahdi Army militia.
"If the prime minister does not give up his intention to meet Bush the criminal in Amman, we will suspend our membership at the council of representatives and the government," Salih al-Ighaeli, head of Sadr's bloc in parliament, told a solemn crowd gathered on the street in front of Sadr's headquarters.
Ali Adeeb, a member of parliament and close Maliki aide, said the Sadr camp was trying to apply pressure tactics, but that the meeting would take place as planned.
The meeting between Bush and Maliki comes at a politically sensitive moment for both leaders. Bush is under pressure from Democrats who have won control of both the House and Senate to come up with a viable strategy to tamp down Iraq's violence and open the way for U.S. troops to come home.
As the sectarian divide within his government widens, Maliki is under U.S. pressure to disarm the Shiite militias, a step the U.S. military believes is needed to tame the violence. But the very people who control the militias, such as Sadr, are key political figures in Maliki's government, capable of causing his downfall.
Friday's reprisal attacks underscore how powerful the Mahdi Army and other militias have become in Iraq, operating above the law, spreading violence even under an indefinite 24-hour lockdown of the capital.
By Friday evening, the attacks were still unfolding. With no other alternative, many Sunnis were hoping for the intervention of U.S. forces.
"Up till now we are waiting for the American forces, and they haven't shown up yet," said Salman al-Zobaye, imam of al-Hashab mosque, in a telephone interview. An attack on the mosque by Shiite militiamen killed four guards.
Throughout Friday, rumors of new atrocities committed against Sunnis floated across Baghdad, including one in which six Sunnis were doused with kerosene and torched to death in Hurriyah. But two local imams, in an interview, denied such an attack took place.
But there was no shortage of confirmed incidents. In Hurriyah, militiamen Friday morning expelled Sunni families who were living near tea warehouses, and more than 90 Sunni families received letters threatening them if they did not leave their houses within 72 hours, authorities said.
In the Amiriyah neighborhood, Sunnis started to form neighborhood militias under the guidance of local clerics to protect themselves. By Friday evening, 25 volunteers signed up, and those without weapons were handed AK-47 rifles, residents said.
By nightfall, the imams of mosques in three Sunni neighborhoods -- Ghazaliya, Amiriyah and Adhamiyah made a joint announcement to their followers.
"We would like to ask you to take care and be careful for the next hours of tonight," they said. "Open fire toward any gunman who enters the city, such as the Mahdi Army, except the Americans, because they will come to protect the people from the death squads and guard the neighborhood."
The imams gave one more piece of advice to their followers: Open fire on any members of the mostly Shiite police forces. What happened in Hurriyah, the imams alleged, was done with their help.
Staff writer Nancy Trejos and special correspondents Naseer Mehdawi, Saad al-Izzi, Waleed Saffar, Salih Dehema and other Washington Post special correspondents in Iraq contributed to this report.