Clerics step up attacks on U.S.

Sermons signal deepening rift between Shiites and U.S. authorities


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Shiite Muslim religious leaders heated up their anti-American rhetoric during prayers yesterday as sectarian violence continued and talks aimed at creating a new Iraqi government faltered.

The occasionally vitriolic sermons, often delivered by clerics close to the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, were the latest sign of souring relations between U.S. political and military leaders and the country's majority Shiites, who initially welcomed the U.S.-led ouster of the Sunni-led government of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Shiite political parties, many of them with religious and family ties to powerful clerical clans in shrine cities in Iran and Iraq, have been angered by U.S. efforts to broker a compromise among Iraq's squabbling political groups.

Kurds, Sunni Arabs and a secular coalition led by Ayad Allawi oppose the Shiites' nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for a full term in office.

This week, a Shiite politician leaked word that President Bush had sent a message through U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that he, too, opposed al-Jaafari's candidacy, a move that angered Shiite leaders.

A leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, called on Washington to remove Khalilzad, who is perceived by some Shiites as biased in favor of Kurds, Sunni Arabs and secular Iraqis.

Khalilzad, speaking to a group of Iraqi women yesterday in the tightly secured Green Zone, took a swipe at Iraqi politicians. "Iraq is bleeding while they are moving at a very slow pace," he said, according to a transcript provided by the U.S. Embassy.

Shiite religious leaders throughout the country also condemned a U.S.-Iraqi raid on a Shiite house of worship Sunday in northern Baghdad that left at least 16 dead.

"This grisly crime was committed by the occupier and its mercenaries," prayer leader Mohammad Tabatabai told worshipers in the impoverished Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City. "America is taking on the role of pharaoh to the world. America came to kill the believers."

Other Shiite leaders called on the Iraqi government to stop sectarian attacks on Shiite villagers in the countryside. The International Organization for Migration, a multinational group that helps refugees, estimates that at least 4,000 families throughout the country have been displaced by sectarian violence or fear.

In Basra, Sheik Abdul Karim Ghizzi demanded that the government help Shiite victims. "We condemn and denounce the disastrous security situation in the country," he told worshipers.

Iraq's Sunni Arabs, once viewed as the primary perpetrators of ethnic violence, have increasingly become victims as shadowy groups with possible ties to official security organizations have conducted a campaign of abduction and murder.

Authorities found at least five corpses yesterday, some handcuffed and bearing signs of torture in what has become the signature of the death squads operating in religiously mixed provinces of central Iraq.

Commandos of the Shiite-led Ministry of Interior and Iraqi soldiers arrested the husband of a Sunni legislator Thursday night, Amal Siham al-Qadhi, a Sunni elected official, said yesterday.

At the Um Qura mosque, among the country's most important Sunni houses of worship, Sheik Mahmoud Sumaidaie called for help from other Arab countries, criticizing leaders who did not attend January's Arab summit in Khartoum, Sudan, which focused this year on the crisis in Iraq.

Insurgents killed at least three Iraqis in Baghdad yesterday. Rockets and mortar rounds struck several neighborhoods in the capital, killing two and injuring two, and insurgents killed a police officer in downtown Baghdad.

Two car bombs in southern Baghdad injured six as an 8 p.m. curfew went into effect in the capital.

Borzou Daragah writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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