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Sectarian fury turns violent in Iraq

Edward Wong, The New York Times


Members of Iraqi Shi'ites' Mehdi Army install their flags on the tower of a Sunni mosque in Baghdad's Sad'r city February 23, 2006

BAGHDAD, Feb 23, 2006 – At least 138 Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs and including some clerics, were killed in central Iraq Wednesday and Thursday in the maelstrom of sectarian violence that followed the bombing of one of the country’s most sacred Shiite shrines, Iraqi officials said.

Seven American soldiers also died in bombings, the American military said Thursday.

The most powerful Sunni Arab political group said it was suspending talks with Shiite and Kurdish politicians to form a new government, accusing Shiite leaders of igniting anti-Sunni reprisals. Across the country, thousands of furious Shiites, some clad in black and wailing with grief, flooded the streets in a second day of protests against the shrine attack. The demonstrations were mostly peaceful, with much of the violence that began on Wednesday having tapered off, though armed Shiites raided several Sunni mosques in Baghdad and set fire to at least two.

In the deadliest assault, 47 people returning from a protest were pulled off buses south of Baghdad on Wednesday and shot in the head, an Interior Ministry official said Thursday.

Three journalists from Al Arabiya, the Arab satellite network, were abducted and killed on Wednesday near the ravaged Shiite shrine of Samarra, whose signature golden dome was reduced to rubble by insurgent-laid explosives on Wednesday morning.

Political and religious leaders, including Moktada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric whose followers were believed to be largely responsible for the anti-Sunni reprisals, called for restraint, warning that Iraq could slip into a full-fledged civil war. The government set a curfew of 8 p.m. and canceled leave for all soldiers and police officers, while American helicopters roared through the skies above Baghdad. Government offices remained shut, and police operated checkpoints along the relatively quiet streets of the capital.

But the poisonous atmosphere created by the insurgent bombing of the Askariya Shrine, which houses the tombs of two revered Shiite imams, and the retaliatory attacks that followed, in which Shiites assaulted dozens of Sunni mosques across the country, hung over every aspect of life today, from conversations between neighbors to frenzied meetings among Iraq’s top political and religious leaders. The American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, spent the day talking to politicians, trying to urge calm and keep the political process on track, despite the anger felt by both Sunnis and Shiites at each other and at the Americans.

Mahmoud al-Mashhadany, a senior official in the Iraqi Consensus Front, the main Sunni Arab political bloc, said in a telephone interview that the bloc had withdrawn from talks to form a four-year government with the main Shiite and Kurdish parties, accusing the Shiite-dominated transitional government of igniting the anti-Sunni violence. Mr. Mashhdany said his group would not re-engage until the government had brought to justice those responsible for attacking Sunni Arabs.

"We’re not ready to negotiate with the killers," he said. "We think what happened yesterday was organized. It had all been organized the night before."

Mr. Mashhadany also accused the American military of standing aside as Shiites slaughtered Sunnis.

The killings and assaults across Iraq amounted to the worst sectarian violence since the American invasion, and underscored the widespread instability throughout the country.

American commanders have said that they hope to draw down a significant portion of the 130,000 American troops here by the end of this year, and that enough Iraqi soldiers and police officers could be trained by then to take over responsibility for security in many areas. Yet, Iraqi security forces did little to contain the violence on Wednesday and today, and in some cases reportedly took part in attacks on mosques.

The violence also threatens to prolong or derail the formation of a new government, which was already mired in bitter negotiations. Ambassador Khalilzad had been trying to persuade Sunni leaders to engage fully with the Shiites and Kurds. In doing so, he had denounced those Shiite leaders who have been accused of supporting government death squads, but the sectarian attacks have pushed Sunni and Shiite politicians further away from the Americans.

:: Article nr. 20947 sent on 24-feb-2006 04:44 ECT


Link: www.thedailyjournalonline.com/article.asp?ArticleId=226712&CategoryId=12395

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