By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 15, 2007
BAGHDAD, June 14 -- At least 13 Sunni mosques came under attack in Iraq the day after bombers struck a revered Shiite shrine for a second time, but the violence did not escalate into the open sectarian warfare that many people in Iraq had feared.
The destruction of two minarets of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, the same religious complex where a devastating bombing in February 2006 sparked rampant killings, was immediately followed by similar rage but not the same degree of violence.
Iraqi officials attributed the difference to the appeals for calm from religious and political leaders, a rapid response by U.S. and Iraqi troops, and round-the-clock emergency curfews that kept residents in Baghdad and other cities homebound throughout the day.
Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., the top U.S. commander for Baghdad, told reporters that Iraqi security forces had increased their presence at all mosques, backed up by U.S. troops who had taken up positions nearby.
In the southern city of Basra, nine Sunni mosques were attacked following the explosion in Samarra, according to a spokesman for the organization that oversees Sunni mosques in Iraq. Most suffered only minor damage in being sprayed by gunfire, but at least one, the al-Othman mosque, was seriously damaged by rocket-propelled grenades. Police reported that Sunni mosques in and around Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, were also hit Wednesday.
"This reaction from our people against the Sunni mosques is expected," said Fadhil Abbas, 56, a retired teacher in Basra. "Our people are under great pressure and can be easily stimulated by such means."
Police patrols found 33 bodies scattered around Baghdad in a 24-hour period ending Thursday, according to an Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity. By the standards of recent months, that is not a particularly high number.
Attacks on U.S. forces in Baghdad spiked Wednesday following the bombing, which some people blamed on the U.S.-led coalition. Fighters targeted American patrols and bases with mortars and rockets as well as machine-gun fire, Fil said. But the capital was relatively calm on Thursday.
Thousands of residents took to the streets in the Shiite holy city of Najaf to condemn the attack on the shrine, chanting for unity in the face of extremist violence and calling on the government to increase its protection of houses of worship.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, on a visit to Baghdad, joined in the chorus of condemnation of the new attack on the shrine, which he called a "deliberate attempt by al-Qaeda to sow dissent and inflame sectarian strife among the people of Iraq."
Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, addressing reporters at a news conference with Negroponte inside the capital's fortified Green Zone, said he has been "impressed in this 24 hours by the way the leadership of this country -- in the face of an enormous provocation -- has thus far stood together."
"The attacks on the bridges, on religious shrines, the attack on the parliament, the attacks on the population at large -- it's clearly part of a concerted al-Qaeda campaign to try to reignite widespread sectarian strife," he said, according to a transcript of the briefing. "They succeeded in February '06. Thus far, in spite of a series of very serious attacks, they haven't succeeded."
Shortly before the briefing, a flurry of mortar shells crashed down in the Green Zone, the Associated Press reported. It was unclear if they caused any casualties.
Residents in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad, said by telephone that they feared an outbreak of further violence and hoped to flee the country when the curfew was lifted. In Sadr City, the vast Shiite enclave in eastern Baghdad that is home to many Shiite militiamen, residents said they were planning to take to the streets Friday to protest the destruction of the shrine.
"Because of the fire inside our hearts, we went out protesting yesterday, but it was not organized or official," said Laith Abu Karrar, 29, a cigarette vendor from Sadr City. "Tomorrow it will be organized, and we will condemn the attack and condemn the occupation." Many Shiites call the U.S. military presence here an occupation.
Because the Samarra shrine had been largely destroyed last year, its famous golden dome brought down, the second attack came as less of a surprise and failed to ignite the same raw emotions, said Ayad al-Samarrae, a Sunni lawmaker.
"Also, the statements that accompanied the first attack made people angry," he said. "But now the statements were all calling for calm and self-control to help contain the crisis."
Meanwhile on Thursday, the insurgent group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq released a video purporting to show a masked gunman shooting 14 members of the army and police one after the other.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff in Iraq, and staff writer Ann Scott Tyson at the Pentagon contributed to this report.