Iraqi leaders warn against Shiite rally

March to bombed mosque would unite Muslims, cleric says

June 29, 2007|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Molly Hennessy-Fiske,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi political leaders warned yesterday that sectarian violence is likely to increase if thousands of Shiites gather next week at the damaged Golden Mosque in Samarra.

Their warnings came on a day in which at least 38 Iraqis died in bombings in the capital.

Iraqi leaders have been pressuring Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to abandon plans to lead a July 5 procession to the Golden Mosque, also known as the Askariya Shrine, in the heart of the mostly Sunni Arab city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.

The mosque's two minarets were destroyed by a bombing June 13, about 16 months after a massive explosion heavily damaged the mosque's signature dome and touched off months of sectarian clashes nationwide.

Al-Sadr insisted yesterday that the gathering was intended to unify Iraq's Muslims. July 5 is the birthday of Fatima Zahra, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and both sects trace their lineage through her.

"Our sole purpose is to reach out and show that core Sunnis are the same as Shiites and revere the prophet Muhammad's family, and that there should not be any animosity toward them, only the terrorists and the occupiers," al-Sadr said in the statement.

But some Iraqi politicians say al-Sadr aims to displace Sunni residents and resettle Shiites in Samarra. A government statement released late yesterday discouraged the procession, noting that routes into Samarra were subject to insurgent attacks.

Tensions between Sunnis and Shiite leaders increased this week after the Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant for Minister of Culture Asad Kamal Hashimi, a Sunni wanted in connection with a 2005 assassination attempt against Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni member of parliament whose two sons were killed in the attack.

Meanwhile, one U.S. soldier was killed yesterday and another wounded by a roadside bomb while patrolling east Baghdad, the military said. At least 3,571 American troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to icasualties.org.

Yesterday's deadliest attack came about 8:15 a.m., when a bomb planted in a pickup truck exploded at a crowded bus station in the southwest Baghdad neighborhood of Bayaa. The blast killed 25 and injured 50 in the mostly Shiite neighborhood.

Ahmad Kamil, 46, was about to board a bus to work when the bomb exploded, sending shrapnel into his forehead, stomach and left arm.

"I felt the huge blast and I was pushed away violently," said Kamil, a government worker. "I didn't realize what had happened at that moment. I almost fainted."

Kamil was taken to Yarmuk Hospital with others injured in the blast. Hospital staff converted two treatment rooms into emergency rooms to treat the wounded, including many women and children, police said. But Kamil said the hospital was still overwhelmed. "I am lucky," he said. "Other injured people here are terribly burnt and injured. They might not survive."

Police also recovered 15 unidentified bodies in Baghdad yesterday.

Early yesterday, three British soldiers were killed and one was injured when a roadside bomb exploded as they were walking near their vehicle southeast of the southern city of Basra, according to British military spokesman Maj. Matthew Bird. At least 156 British troops have been killed in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, according to icasualties.org.

Witnesses reported yesterday that British forces in Basra opened fire from a helicopter, killing five people in a vehicle west of the city. Maj. David Gell, a spokesman for British forces, said the civilians were killed by fire from the helicopter and a roadside bomb.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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