Baghdad: Shi’ite pilgrims massacred —again

From the Washington Post, Aug. 21:.

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Sunni Arab insurgents armed with rifles and mortar shells killed 20 pilgrims and wounded 300 others who thronged the capital Sunday for one of Shiite Islam’s most important holidays, authorities said.

But in a sign of just how routine the intense sectarian bloodshed in the capital has become, the U.S. military reported “relatively little violence.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki touted the “success” of Iraqi security forces “in preventing the terrorists from killing innocents.”

The carnage took place despite a weekend ban on car traffic and months of planning by Iraqi security forces to control an estimated 1 million pilgrims who flocked to Baghdad to commemorate the death of Imam Moussa Kadhim, a revered figure in Shiite Islam. About 1,000 people were killed during the holiday last year when rumors of a suicide bomber triggered a stampede.

The killings also highlighted the growing animosity between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that many fear is causing Iraq to slide into a full-blown civil war.

The largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Islamic Party, denounced the Shiite-led government for announcing the deaths of only Shiite pilgrims. It said Shiite militias had attacked innocent Sunni residents Sunday without interference from police, killing at least seven people and wounding many more.

“These militias want to extinguish the flame of peace,” said Alaa Makki, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party. “The militias played a very bad role today.”

Shiites from across Iraq flocked to the Al-Kadhimiyah area of Baghdad over the past three days to prepare for Sunday’s holiday. The office of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr estimated 2 million came Sunday, although the U.S. military put the figure at 1 million.

Pilgrims began marching in religious parades at 3 a.m., thrashing their backs with heavy metal chains to the beat of a drum in an act of ritual penance.

“We wish to be bombed and killed so that we will be in the immortal paradise along with Imam Kadhim and the rest of the prophet’s family,’ said Malik al-Majid, 46, a leader of the parade. “We are not afraid of anything.”

The violence began before dawn when 150 to 200 Sunni insurgents began firing mortar shells and shooting at pilgrims in the Solaikh and Al-Azamiyah districts of Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Karim Taha, commander of nearby Iraqi army troops. Snipers also targeted worshipers in the Karkh, Al-Kadhimiyah and Bab al-Muadham areas.

Luai Hussein, a Shiite worshiper, said he was returning at 11 a.m. from ceremonies at the gold-domed shrine were Imam Kadhim is believed to be buried when two rooftop snipers shot and killed his friend.

“Be careful, there are snipers!” he recalled members of the Mahdi Army, Sadr’s militia, shouting as they fired guns into the air.

Sunni residents said they were being attacked by members of Shiite militias who seemed bent on avenging the deaths of the estimated 1,000 pilgrims last year.

Makki, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said Shiite militias, which he declined to identify, used mortar shells, Katyusha rockets and rocket-propelled grenades to attack Sunnis. He said the exact death toll was unknown because many Sunnis were afraid to visit Shiite-controlled hospitals.

Ahmed Abu Taha, a Sunni who lives near the city’s Silikh district, said armed men wearing black clothes and green cloaks attacked a Sunni mosque with the support of Iraqi police. He said Sunnis begged members of the mainly Shiite Iraqi army for help, but they refused.

“Why is the Iraqi army not protecting the Iraqi people?” he asked. The fighting did not stop until 3 p.m. when U.S. forces cordoned off the area, Taha said.

It is an ingenious if shockingly cynical strategy on the part of those seeking to plunge Iraq ever more deeply into sectarian civil war. The defining moments of Shia identity are related to persecution at the hands of Sunnis. Attacks on pilgrims commemorating Moussa al-Kadhim—the seventh of Shia’s twelve revered imams, who was poisoned to death in prison by the Sunni Caliph Haroun al-Rashid—brilliantly merges historical memory and contemporary politics. Recent history has all too many examples of what an explosive mixture this can be.

See our last posts on the Iraq, sectarian cleansing and attacks on Shi’ite shrines.