Attacks Belie Steps on Reconciliation

Men stand outside the Rasoul mosque in the New Baghdad neighborhood, where a teenager detonated explosives as Shiite worshipers left prayers, killing 10.
Men stand outside the Rasoul mosque in the New Baghdad neighborhood, where a teenager detonated explosives as Shiite worshipers left prayers, killing 10. (By Hadi Mizban -- Associated Press)
Iraq bombing
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008

BAGHDAD, Oct. 2 -- A pair of suicide bombers struck around 8 a.m. Thursday, as Shiite worshipers streamed out of morning prayers at two mosques in Baghdad, killing at least 16 people and injuring more than 50. North of the capital, gunmen opened fire on a minibus outside the city of Baqubah, killing six members of a Sunni family, including children ages 5 and 6, authorities said.

The attacks were grim reminders of the sectarian tensions that turned Iraq into a killing field in 2006 after bombs nearly destroyed a much-venerated Shiite shrine in the ancient city of Samarra.

But consider what happened in Samarra this week: Shiite and Sunni clerics held joint prayers to commemorate the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "Both Sunnis and Shiites suffered heavily in this senseless conflict, which should prompt us to heal our wounds and stand united once again," Taha Sammarae, a Sunni imam who took part in the prayers, said Thursday.

Iraq is on a knife's edge between war and peace, with violence down dramatically since last year but still a potent force. In addition to deadly sectarian attacks, the country's Shiite-led government faces unresolved political problems that could flare into renewed bloodshed, from how to absorb U.S.-paid Sunni armed groups to how to distribute the country's oil revenue.

A drive around Baghdad shows the mix of normality and threat that characterizes the country. Some billboards feature a cheerful Iraqi pop star hawking cellphones; others show glowering men accused of planting explosive devices. "Wanted for justice," they read.

Another billboard displays a photograph of smoke rising from a bomb attack alongside a picture of a historic minaret, a symbol of Iraq's heritage. "Your city could be like this or that," the billboard says. "Which one do you want?"

Undoubtedly most Iraqis would choose peace. But many are braced for further violence.

That nervousness was evident Thursday in the working-class New Baghdad neighborhood, where the blue-and-green tiled minaret of the Rasoul mosque towers over dun-colored homes and shops. Men brandishing pistols and Kalashnikov rifles clustered around the mosque's doorway. Only hours earlier, a teenager in a long robe had detonated his explosives at a makeshift checkpoint down the street, killing 10 people and wounding at least 31.

Inside the mosque, officials blamed Sunni extremists associated with the former government of Saddam Hussein or the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. "Every day, every Friday at prayer time, we fear this," said Imat Abu Muhammad, a bearded, middle-aged mosque manager in a black sports shirt, sitting in a room off the carpeted prayer area.

Asked if Shiites would strike back, he vigorously shook his head. "No, we will never think like that," he said.

"We don't have enemies," added the mosque's security chief, Sami Ghazi Abu Mustafa.

But a 23-year-old Islamic studies student in a long, tan tunic, Ali Lazim, quickly spoke up.

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