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.
"That doesn't mean we will keep staying quiet," he vowed. "We may have to reply to them, at a time of our own choosing. This will be according to an order" from the Shiite religious leadership, he said.
The second suicide bombing occurred just a few miles away, near the Mohammad Rasoul Allah mosque in the Zafaraniya neighborhood. The driver of a white sedan detonated explosives at an Iraqi security forces checkpoint, blasting apart the Iraqi patrol's Humvee. Six people were killed and 23 injured, according to Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, a spokesman for Iraqi military operations in Baghdad.
The incidents occurred as many Shiites began celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
A counterpoint to the Baghdad bombings was the gesture of reconciliation in Samarra, where a Sunni-Shiite prayer service at the city's grand mosque Wednesday drew about 700 worshipers. In their speeches, clerics from each sect agreed on the need for tolerance -- and jointly blamed much of the sectarian war on the U.S.-led coalition forces.
Violence in Iraq has dropped markedly from last year, with 860 people killed in war-related incidents in September, down from 2,431 in the same period a year earlier, according to figures obtained from the Iraqi Interior and Health ministries.
The decline is attributed to several factors: the decision of many Sunni insurgent groups to ally themselves with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq; a cease-fire declared by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; and the "surge" in U.S. troops who worked closely with Iraqi security forces in neighborhood units.
In addition, Iraq's security forces have become stronger. The U.S. military said the death toll in Thursday's bombings would have been far higher if the Iraqi security forces and mosque guards hadn't stopped the bombers at checkpoints down the street from the crowded halls of worship.
Although there was no assertion of responsibility for the attacks, they bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist Sunni groups. Officials accuse the groups of trying to reignite the sectarian violence of recent years.
Some analysts say, though, that violence is more likely to erupt these days from political disputes than from a desire to avenge a bomb attack. One potential conflict involves the U.S. allies known as Sons of Iraq. The Shiite-led Iraqi government started taking control of them Wednesday, but it is clearly wary of the mostly Sunni armed groups.
There are numerous other flash points that could lead to violence, such as friction between Arabs and Kurds over how much area should fall under Kurdish control in northern Iraq. The country has still not decided how to divide its oil revenue among the different regions, and has made limited progress on reincorporating former low- and mid-ranking officials from Hussein's Baath Party.
Provincial elections expected early next year will be a major test of whether the minority Sunnis, who held a privileged position under Hussein but mostly boycotted the last round of voting, will be allowed to take a political role proportionate to their share of the population.
In addition to the sectarian attacks, extremists continued to target U.S. forces Thursday. A mortar shell or missile landed near the new U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone, after months of relative peace in the heavily guarded area. There were no reports of casualties.
Also Thursday, U.S. soldiers were attacked in Mansour, a district in western Baghdad, at approximately 11:45 a.m., a U.S. military spokesman said. Two soldiers were wounded in the attack, which appeared to have been carried out with a car bomb, Lt. Col. Steven Stover said in an e-mail.
Correspondent Ernesto Londoño and special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Salahuddin province contributed to this report.