Sunni Shrine Leveled In Apparent Reprisal

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 16, 2007

BAGHDAD, June 15 -- Extremists demolished a Sunni mosque near Basra early Friday, prompting the government to impose an indefinite curfew in the southern port city. The strike was an apparent retaliation for Wednesday's attack on a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the threat of sectarian attacks seemed to abate. The government announced that a curfew in the capital that began at 3 p.m. Wednesday would be lifted at 5 a.m. Sunday.

The U.S. military announced that a troop buildup in Iraq had been completed with the full deployment of 28,500 additional U.S. troops, most in high-profile posts around the capital. The increase, which started in February, brings the number of U.S. forces in the country to about 160,000.

The strategy, based on the idea that Baghdad must be pacified first, aims to create enough calm so that Iraqi leaders can reach agreement on key political measures to achieve reconciliation among the country's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who on Friday made an unannounced visit to Baghdad, said the United States was disappointed with the progress on the political front. Gates said he would give the Iraqi leadership "the same message that I have been delivering since December, that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation, that frankly we are disappointed with the progress so far," the Reuters news service reported.

The importance of achieving political reconciliation and improving security was underscored this week by the attack on the revered Askariya shrine in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad, and the subsequent retaliatory attacks on 13 Sunni mosques across Iraq. An attack on Askariya, also known as the Golden Mosque, in February 2006 sparked widespread Shiite-Sunni violence.

Friday's 5:30 a.m. attack southwest of Basra occurred at the Sunni shrine of Talha bin Obeid-Allah when "14 pickups carrying unknown armed men attacked the mosque, put explosives inside of it and detonated them," said Anwar Abdul Sattar, who works nearby and witnessed the bombing. The mosque, which was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades Thursday and blown to rubble Friday, was the largest Sunni mosque in the Basra region, which is dominated by Shiites.

"All members in charge of security at the mosque have been arrested," Maj. Gen. Ali Hamadi, head of the provincial Basra emergency security committee, told Reuters.

In other violence, 35 bodies were found Friday in the capital. Unidentified bodies dumped in Baghdad typically turn out to be those of Sunni men executed by Shiite death squads.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced the deaths of five soldiers. Three were killed Thursday in an explosion near their vehicle in northern Iraq, and one was killed Thursday by small-arms fire in Diyala province north of Baghdad. The fifth died Wednesday in a noncombat incident that is under investigation, according to a military statement.

An F-16 fighter jet with one crew member crashed while "on a close-air-support mission" early Friday, the Air Force said in a statement. It did not give further information about the fate of the pilot. The jet was deployed to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base, about 45 miles north of Baghdad, the statement said, adding that the cause of the crash was under investigation.

Other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

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