Sectarian violence appeared Friday to be embroiling another of Iraq's fractious religious groups, as authorities reported a suicide bombing that killed nine people Thursday evening at a Sufi place of worship north of Baghdad.
Witnesses said a minibus packed with explosives crashed into the outer wall of a takya, or monastery, outside the northern city of Balad shortly before sundown Thursday. More than 40 people, some of them children and all of them adherents of the Sufi branch of Sunni Islam, had gathered inside the monastery, the witnesses said, and when they rushed outside upon hearing the sounds of the crash, the minivan's driver detonated his payload.
In addition to killing nine people, the explosion wounded 12 and blew a massive hole in the cinder-block wall surrounding the monastery's courtyard. Among the dead were the owner of the monastery and four of his sons, said a fifth son, Edris Ayash, who survived the attack.
"This is one of the attempts to provoke sectarian conflict," Whayib Muhammed, 47, another witness, said Friday. "But we are all Iraqis, and it wouldn't work."
It was not immediately clear what motivated the attack or who carried it out. During weeks of gradually intensifying violence between Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and Arab members of the Sunni minority, the comparatively tiny Sufi sect has not been a common target. Although Iraq's Sufis generally consider themselves part of Sunni Islam, they practice a mystical form of Islam that is distinct from the Sunni mainstream and is rejected by the more austere, hard-line Sunnis who form the core of the insurgency in Iraq.
Sectarian violence has intensified in the months since elections at the end of January gave Shiites a majority of the seats in the new National Assembly. The Shiites and their coalition partners, Iraq's ethnic Kurds, formed a government in late April, shifting power to two groups that were persecuted for decades by the Sunni-dominated government of Saddam Hussein. Sunnis, on the other hand, largely boycotted the January elections and now have scant representation both in the assembly and on the committee recently formed to draft a new constitution.
Though Shiite and Kurdish leaders have repeatedly vowed to broaden the role of Sunnis in the new government, more than 850 people have been killed since the government was formed. Much of the killing has been religiously motivated, and many of the victims have been Sunni and Shiite clerics.
In Baghdad, clerics on both sides of the sectarian divide appealed in their Friday sermons for their followers to abandon narrow factional concerns and strive for a society in which rival groups could not only coexist but also prosper.
At the Buratha mosque, Mohammad Taqi Maula urged Shiite worshipers to "cooperate with the security forces to protect our country, our people, and put an end to terror." The recent surge in violence, he said, was contrary to Islamic teaching and indicated insurgents were "on the downslide, and will be defeated soon because the people are aware of their tactics and have declared opposition to such senseless attacks."
And at the Sunni Um al-Qura mosque, Sheik Mahmood Sumaydaie asserted that if the new Iraqi government ensured that no sect was marginalized, "everyone will live under the government's shade without any problems."
"Balancing will create balancing," Sumaydaie said, prompting many in the crowd to respond: "God is greatest."
In the southern city of Basra, however, authorities on Friday reported the killing of another Shiite cleric the previous night. Ali Abdul Hussein, the imam of the Zahraa mosque in Basra's central Jubaila neighborhood, was gunned down by unknown assailants, according to witnesses. "A car with two armed men inside it stopped in front of the house of the imam and shot him dead and then escaped," said Mohammed Hayyawi, 48, a neighbor who said he saw the killing.
Friday's reports raised to at least 46 the number of Iraqis killed Thursday.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, meanwhile, a senior security official was shot and killed as he left a mosque after Friday prayers. The victim, Gen. Sabah Qara Alton, an aide to the chief of internal affairs in Kirkuk, was an ethnic Turkmen. Since the fall of Hussein, whose government drove Kurds from Kirkuk and resettled the area with Arabs and Turkmen, the three ethnic groups have vied -- often violently -- for control of the oil-rich city.
Aldin reported from Balad. Special correspondents Emad Zainal in Basra, Marwan Ani in Kirkuk and Khalid Saffar, Naseer Nouri, Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad contributed to this report.