Iraq: 130 dead in violence following Samarra bombing

Well, it sure looks like whoever it is who is trying to plunge Iraq into all-out civil war have finally acheived their aim. Much chance of pulling this one back from the brink? A round-up from the Muslim American Society’s MASNET service, Feb. 23, commentary inserted:

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani warned that widespread rebellion could engulf his war-torn country, as sectarian bloodshed over the past two days have claimed the lives of more than 130 people.

Most of those killed are believed to be Sunnis who were gunned down in a wave of retaliation attacks after the bombing Wednesday of a revered Shiite shrine that has left dozens of mosques damaged or in ruins, prompting fears of civil war, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The upsurge in sectarian killings came after suspected al-Qaeda-linked militants attacked the 1,000-year-old Imam Ali al-Hadi mausoleum, known as the Golden Mosque, one of the country’s main Shiite shrines, in Samarra, north of Baghdad, sparking militia battles and sectarian reprisals.

A spokesman for the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars blamed the violence on the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and other Shiite religious leaders who called for demonstrations against the shrine attack, reports the Associated Press (AP).

(Whether honestly or not, Ayatollah Sistani called for peaceful protest. So let me get this straight: Muslims everywhere are supposed to take to the streets for weeks over some offensive cartoons, but Shiites aren’t supposed to protest the destruction of one of their holiest shrines?)

The direct criticism of Sistani, widely seen as a force for restraint, was unusual and prompted criticism in return from one of Sistani’s fellow religious authorities.

Spiraling violence now threatens to derail negotiations on setting up a government of national unity, with the main Sunni political party declaring a boycott of talks with the Shiite-led government to protest reprisal attacks on its community.

The Sunni Arab National Concord Front Thursday also boycotted an emergency meeting of national leaders called by Talabani in a bid to restore calm.

“It is illogical to negotiate with parties that are trying to damage the political process,” said Tariq al-Hashimi, a leader of the Accordance Front, reports the Associated Press (AP).

After discussions with Shiites, Kurds and leaders of a smaller Sunni group, Talabani told a televised news conference that if all-out war came “no one will be safe.”

“Putting out the fire of sedition is a sacred duty and requires national unity,” he said. “The fire of sedition, when it breaks out, can burn everything in its path and spare no one.”

Mahmud Othman, a member of the Kurdish delegation who attended the meeting, said “everyone” at the meeting spoke of the risk of civil war and expressed concern that Friday prayers, when tensions run high, could trigger a new outburst of violence.

Eighty bullet-riddled corpses were brought to the Baghdad morgue between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, the deputy director of the morgue, Kais Mohammed, told AFP.

“I’ve only been able to carry out autopsies on 25 of them,” he said, adding that all had been shot. Many of them, dumped in and around Baghdad, could not immediately be identified, but they were widely believed to be those of Sunnis.

Another 47 men, shot to death, were discovered alongside 10 burned out cars on the outskirts of Nahrawan, southeast of Baghdad, police said. They were understood to be workers from a nearby brick factory.

Other reports indicate they were apparently both Sunnis and Shiites, whom gunmen dragged from vehicles after they attended a demonstration to show cross-sectarian solidarity near Baghdad, reports Reuters.

(Who organized this “cross-sectarian solidarity” demonstration? They need our immediate support! This is the most urgent task of the anti-war movement in the US and UK.)

One Sunni was also killed Thursday and two wounded in a drive-by shooting outside a Sunni mosque in Baquba, northeast of the capital, and a Sunni sheikh was shot dead in Hillah, south of Baghdad, police said.

Iraq has placed its security forces on high alert, cancelled all leave and imposed a night curfew in Baghdad that is three hours earlier than usual.

President George W. Bush, who has stepped into the worst crisis since the U.S. invasion – one that threatens efforts to form a stable, unity government and bring U.S. troops home from Iraq – said the shrine bombing was aimed at creating “civil strife”.

“The act was an evil act,” Bush said. “The destruction of a holy site is a political act intending to create strife. So I am pleased with the voices of reason that have spoken out.”

(Yeah, yeah. And all the mosques that have been damaged or, as in Fallujah, destroyed by US firepower did not constitute “evil acts”? It almost seems superfluous to point out Bush’s hypocrisy.)

Bush praised Iraqi leaders’ public efforts to maintain calm, reports Reuters.

He also said the U.S. was committed to helping rebuild the Shiite mosque.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is visiting the Middle East, urged Iraqis to pull together and not be pushed into sectarian strife by a bloodless but highly symbolic attack blamed on al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the news agency reports.

“The only people that want a civil war in Iraq are the terrorists like Zarqawi,” she told reporters.

The U.N. envoy also stepped in, asking Iraqi leaders to join him in a meeting. “I have invited political, religious and civil leaders to discuss confidence-building measures to ensure the situation remains under control,” Ashraf Qazi told the news agency.

In other violence, at least 12 people were killed in a powerful roadside bomb attack in Baquba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Eight were Iraqi army soldiers and four civilians, police said, adding 20 people were wounded.

Police also reported finding the bodies of three Iraqi journalists working for Dubai-based Arabiya satellite television who were kidnapped near Samarra Wednesday evening while reporting on the shrine bombing.

On Wednesday, following the bloodless bombing of the shrine, dozens of Sunni mosques were attacked despite calls by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric, to refrain from reprisals.

The attack on the Samarra shrine, where two of Shiite Islam’s most revered imams were buried in the 9th century AD, destroyed its dome.

The main Sunni religious group said 184 Sunni mosques had been damaged, some destroyed; 10 clerics had been killed and 15 abducted, the Muslim Clerics Association said, accusing Shiite religious leaders of stoking the anger by calling for protests, reports Reuters.

(Oh? And Sunnis have not protested the destruction of their mosques? And—while wishing to justify or minimize no attacks—it should be pointed out that the Samarra shrine wasn’t just a mosque, but one of Shia’s key holy sites and a world heritage treasure.)

The direct criticism of Sistani, widely seen as a force for restraint, was unusual and prompted criticism in return from one of Sistani’s fellow religious authorities, the news agency reports.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari proclaimed three days of national mourning, and Thursday was declared a public holiday in a bid to get people off the streets.

The National Concord Front, which controls 44 of the 275 seats in the newly-elected parliament, called on the government to clearly condemn violence against Sunnis and deploy troops to protect them.

It also demanded the release of Sunnis arrested or kidnapped, and compensation for the families of those killed and for mosques burned or looted.

“As we await justice, we will suspend participation in talks on setting up a government of national unity,” the alliance said.

Sunni militant groups, including al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, threatened to retaliate for the attacks on Sunni Arabs, a statement on their Internet site said.

The Shiites are “trying to transform themselves from criminals … into victims,” it charged, warning of “forceful retaliation for acts of aggression against the Sunni community and their mosques.”

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr accused the Iraqi government and U.S. forces of failing to protect the Samarra shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, and ordered his militia to defend Shiite holy sites across Iraq, reports the AP.

(Uh-huh. This is the same Moqtada al-Sadr who used Najaf’s Imam Ali shrine as a base for his militia, therby drawing the fire of US forces.)

“If the government had real sovereignty, then nothing like this would have happened,” al-Sadr said in a statement. “Brothers in the Mahdi Army must protect all Shiite shrines and mosques, especially in Samarra.”

Fighting broke out Thursday afternoon in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, between al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and Sunni militiamen. Two civilians were killed and five militiamen were injured, reports the AP.

Thousands of demonstrators carrying Shiite flags and banners marched through parts of Baghdad, Karbala, Kut, Tal Afar and the Shiite holy city of Najaf in protest against the shrine attack, the news agency reports.

“The issue hangs on the next few days. Either the gates of hell open onto a civil war or the Shiites will take more power with the excuse that Sunni leaders are unable to rein in increasing terrorist activity,” said Hazim al-Naimi, a political science professor at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University, reports Reuters.

“Only the U.S. military is preventing war in some areas.”

(Is Prof. Naimi correct? Or is the US military presence ultimately responsible for the Golden Dome attack, by allowing al-Qaeda to tar Shiites as collaborators with a foreign occupation?)

The U.S. military, meanwhile, on Thursday announced that seven of its soldiers died on Wednesday in rebel attacks, taking total U.S. military deaths in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to at least 2,290, according to Pentagon figures.

See our last post on Iraq.