Religious strife flares in Baghdad
Thousands of Sunnis gathered Wednesday in Baghdad to mark the deaths of 3 people killed Tuesday by a blast at a mosque. Some blamed Shiite militias for the attack.
The Sunni and Shiite residents of western Baghdad's Hurriyeh neighborhood have lived in harmony for years. Their families intermarry. They attend each other's weddings and funerals and pray in each other's mosques. It is a calm area too, with not a single attack reported against the coalition forces since April.Skip to next paragraph
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That coexistence, however, came to an abrupt end early Tuesday morning. An explosion beside a Sunni mosque killed three people and ripped the fabric of communal unity that bound Shiites and Sunnis, exposing the deep-rooted sectarian divisions within Iraqi society.
The Sunnis blame the explosion on militant Shiites belonging to the Al Dawa party and the Badr Brigades, the military wing of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The Shiites accuse Sunnis from the extremist Wahhabi sect of stirring up tensions between the two communities.
As the three victims were buried Wednesday, armed Sunni and Shiite gunmen took to the streets vowing revenge, while clerics pleaded for calm. Grim-faced American troops, backed by Apache helicopter gunships, patrolled the neighborhood.
It is up to the local Muslim clerics, who represent the voice of leadership in the community, to restore calm to the neighborhood. No easy task, however, given the young firebrands whose traditional obedience to and respect for the clerics runs up against an equally traditional desire for revenge.
"It is something tragic that God's house should be attacked," says Sheikh Farouk al-Batawy, the imam of the Ahbab al-Mustafa mosque. "Even nonbelievers condemn something like this."
Claims differ over the circumstances of the deadly explosion at 6:45 a.m. Tuesday in the courtyard of the Ahbab al-Mustafa mosque. The regular Sunni worshipers at the mosque say that two rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the roof of a neighboring school, no more than 20 yards away. The first rocket struck the ground in the courtyard, digging a small crater and punching a hole in one wall of the mosque. The second rocket hit a parked car in the courtyard. The vehicle blew up, igniting several jerrycans of fuel beside a generator, which augmented the force of the blast.
One of the victims was in the car when it was hit. The blast hurled the other two over a wall into the street.
"Two of them had their bodies torn," says Sheikh Batawy, speaking in a dimly lit room beside the mosque filled with somber-looking Sunni clerics and supporters. "I knew all three of them. They prayed regularly at the mosque."
He says that the explosion was the latest in a number of attacks against Sunnis in Baghdad.
"The relations with the Shiites have always been very good here. Only the Shiites who have come from outside Iraq want to cause problems, he says, referring to the Iran-trained Badr Brigades.
But local Shiite residents have a very different take on what happened.
"The people that died were Wahhabis, and they were putting a bomb in the car," says Abu Hussein, declining to give his full name. "No one fired RPGs at them. We had nothing to do with what happened."
The Shiites say that there have always been some Wahhabis living in the area, but they have grown more assertive since Saddam Hussein's downfall in April.
The Iraqi police are investigating the causes of the explosion, but the Shiite view that Islamic militants accidentally blew themselves up has some credence, according to Lt. Col. Frank Sherman of Boston, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Brigade.
"The explosion was not caused by a fired RPG," he says. "The school roof is too close; the rockets would not have had time to arm."
Nonetheless, RPG fragments were recovered by the police, he adds, suggesting that it may have been a bomb of jerry-built RPG rounds of the type regularly used by militants against coalition troops.