Iraqi clerics urge calm, self-defense

Marine, 18 Iraqis killed as violence continues


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Some clerics issued calls for calm and others issued calls to defend communities yesterday as at least 18 more Iraqis and a U.S. Marine were killed in a nation grappling with an anti-government insurgency and continuing sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

In the capital, during the first Muslim day of worship without a vehicle ban since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and subsequent reprisals that left hundreds dead, Sheik Jalaladin Sagheer of the Baratha Mosque told his Shiite followers that the battle against terrorism has no limits.

"They trampled upon our dignity and our values," said Sagheer, a high-ranking member of a Shiite political party that is part of the government's ruling coalition. "Our street must not be satisfied with merely expressing sorrow but must participate in getting rid of this danger."

In largely Shiite Basra, the Friday prayer leader of the city's main Sunni mosque issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on believers to arm themselves.

"All Muslims should have a weapon in their home for protection of yourselves and your honor," Sheik Ibrahim al-Hassan told worshipers. "Instead of buying a satellite dish, buy a weapon."

"This is a fatwa, and anyone who will not follow it is a coward."

U.S. and Iraqi officials have expressed hope that the formation of a national unity government drawn from all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups can help calm sectarian tensions between the country's majority Shiites and once-dominant Sunnis, quell the insurgency and allow for the withdrawal of at least some of the 150,000 U.S. and other foreign troops in the country.

But the effort to create a four-year government after the Dec. 15 elections bogged down, and elected officials are not expected to convene until March 19 in a session of parliament.

To guard against further violence, Iraqi security forces stepped up patrols yesterday around religious sites, including the capital's Abu Hanifa Sunni mosque, where 10 Iraqi soldiers stood guard. Those entering the mosques were subject to body searches.

"All Muslims must keep their eyes and ears open to stay alert so the plans of our enemies will fail," Sheik Ahmad Taha of Abu Hanifa told worshipers.

Iraqi government officials, unlike those in most Arab countries, do not control or censor politically charged Friday sermons. Clerics have assumed prominence in Iraq as civic and political leaders in the power vacuum that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government nearly three years ago.

Yesterday, many of them warned of fitna, a dreaded Arabic word referring to civil wars between Shiites and Sunnis during the decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

"Fitna has opened its doors these days," Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidaii told worshipers at Qura Umm, a major Sunni mosque in Baghdad. "One word can calm or inflame people, and we must say things that calm people."

In the ethnically contested city of Kirkuk, long considered a powder keg of rivalry between Kurds and Turkoman, Sheik Adnan Mohammad Tahir called on Iraqis to set aside differences.

"We are all Muslims," he told worshipers at Imam Wasity Mosque. "God created different people. God sees them all as equally Muslims."

Despite the calls for calm, violence flared around the country yesterday.

In Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city where the venerated Shiite Muslim shrine was destroyed last month, sparking sectarian reprisals, attackers killed at least four and injured 10 yesterday.

A car bomb targeting a police vehicle in the town center killed a cleric at a nearby mosque and injured seven others. A roadside bomb outside another mosque killed three and injured three. The attacks prompted security forces to shut down roads into the city and dispatch U.S. helicopter gun ships.

In Fallujah, a suicide bomber rammed a car into a checkpoint, killing a U.S. Marine, an Iraqi soldier and three civilians, the U.S. military said.

In Baghdad, a car bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol near the international airport in the western part of the city killed an Iraqi soldier and injured three.

Insurgents destroyed a U.S. tank in eastern Baghdad, U.S. officials and Iraqi police said.

A roadside bomb targeting a police convoy killed a police officer and injured two near the capital's Yarmouk Hospital, police said.

Authorities found nine bodies around the capital, each handcuffed and with bullet wounds to the head, the latest in a wave of killings with apparent sectarian overtones.

An American who was among four Christian activists kidnapped last year in Iraq has been killed, the Associated Press reported. State Department spokesman Noel Clay said the FBI had verified that a body found in Iraq yesterday morning was that of Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va. He said he had no information on the other three hostages.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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