Shiites targeted in attacks that kill 36

Apparent goal of violence is sectarian discord

Bloodshed mars eve of holy day

February 19, 2005|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A string of attacks targeting Iraqi Shiites on the eve of one of their holiest days killed at least 36 people yesterday, a day after a coalition representing the Shiite majority was confirmed as the winner of Iraq's landmark election.

Stepping up their campaign to sow sectarian discord in the wake of the poll, insurgents struck three mosques, a religious procession and a base for Iraq's National Guard on one of the worst days of bloodshed in and around Baghdad since the election nearly three weeks ago.

The attacks seemed designed to spread fear among Iraq's Shiites as they prepare to commemorate the holy day of Ashoura today, stirring memories of the bloody attacks during last year's celebrations in which more than 180 people died.

In the first of the day's attacks, a suicide bomber wearing a belt of explosives mingled among worshipers and then blew himself up during Friday prayers at the Khadimain mosque in the southwestern Baghdad suburb of Dora, killing 15 and wounding dozens, according to hospital officials.

A little more than 45 minutes later, at 1:15 p.m., two suicide bombers attempted to enter another mosque in the neighborhood of al-Bayaa in western Baghdad as prayers were under way but were noticed by Iraqi guards, who opened fire. One of the bombers was shot and detonated on the spot; another fled and exploded about 100 yards away, the U.S. military said. At least 10 people were killed in that attack, officials said.

Shortly after, a mortar exploded near a coffee shop in the Shula neighborhood as a religious procession passed nearby, killing two, police said.

Later yesterday, a car bomb exploded outside a Shiite mosque in the town of Iskanderiyah south of Baghdad, killing seven, the Associated Press reported. In Kirkuk, one person died in an attack on a Turkmen mosque, according to news agencies.

At least three members of Iraq's security forces also died in an attack on their checkpoint in western Baghdad, officials said.

Violence had been anticipated during the Shiite festival, and police and National Guard soldiers were out in force on the streets of Baghdad, guarding religious sites and manning checkpoints. The city's Shiites were also out in force, thronging mosques and marching in the streets, flailing their backs and foreheads in a ritual expression of remorse for the failure of Shiites to go to the aid of their slain leader, Imam Hussein, at the battle of Karbala in 680.

Security tightened

Tight security measures are also in force in the holy city of Karbala, which typically draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the site of the battle. Hussein's slaying cost him the chance to assume the caliphate of the Muslim world and precipitated the schism between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam.

The differences that have since divided the two communities have grown in the 22 months since the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein was toppled, and the Shiite victory in the recent election seems likely to further deepen the sectarian divide.

At Friday prayers in Najaf yesterday, a senior Shiite cleric warned that insurgents were trying to spark a civil war and accused Sunni members of Iraq's security forces of helping the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

"The security organizations must get rid of these spoilers," said Sadreddin al-Qubanchi, a cleric affiliated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the leading parties in the victorious Shiite coalition. "There is a process under way of committing terrorism in the name of fighting terrorism."

The United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of mostly religious Shiite parties, gained 140 seats in the 275-member National Assembly that will write Iraq's new constitution and pick the next government.

Though Shiite leaders have vowed to include disenfranchised Sunnis in the process, they have been unable to agree even on their own candidates for top government positions, and there has been little progress toward identifying posts for Sunnis not represented in the assembly. Most of Iraq's Sunnis stayed away from the poll.

"Everybody meets with them and everybody talks about how they have to have a Sunni outreach strategy, but I haven't seen too many concrete proposals," said a U.S. official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Shiite restraint

U.S. officials have praised the restraint of Shiites, who have largely refrained from retaliating against the building tempo of attacks against them. Attacks against Shiite mosques during Friday prayers have become routine in recent months, although the onslaught yesterday represented a marked increase in the number of daily attacks.

Iraq's government had partially sealed its land borders from Friday to Tuesday to avoid bloodshed. Exceptions will be made for trucks carrying food or oil. Baghdad's international airport will remain open for flights, aviation industry officials said.

A little known insurgent group, the Mujahedeen in Iraq, released a videotape showing two Indonesian journalists who disappeared Feb. 8. The group threatened to kill them if the Indonesian government did not explain why the journalists were in Iraq.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appealed for the release of 26-year-old reporter Meutya Viada Hafid and Budiyanto, 36, a cameraman.

"At this moment, they were reporting on our brothers and sisters in Iraq, because we in Indonesia - the world's largest Muslim country - are very concerned about the situation in which the people of Iraq find themselves," the president said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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