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True or not, report of 'massacre' angers Iraqis

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 2006


The public perceptions swirling around a "massacre" - as some Iraqi officials have charged - are the latest incident to stall the creation of Iraq's new government.

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Did US forces attack a mosque in a Shiite district of Baghdad Sunday night, killing 17 unarmed worshippers, an act that Iraq's Shiite interior minister called a "horrible violation" that has dominated Iraqi TV and sparked a political outcry?

Or, did Iraqi special forces, backed up by US advisers, take on a "terrorist cell" at an office complex, kill 16 "insurgents," and free an Iraqi hostage - only to have Iraqi provocateurs, as top US commanders allege, "set the scene up" to look like an atrocity?

The truth may be the latest war casualty as perceptions shape Iraq's political reality, and the prevailing view of a bloody US raid is undermining US-backed efforts to form a coalition government, while boosting the influence of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"How could [Americans] come out of this mess?" asks Ghassan Atiyyah, head of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, who was reached in London. "Sadr is becoming a strong force in Iraqi politics. When he was weak, they could not deal with him, and now he is strong."

"I very much appreciate what [US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad] is doing" to form a unity government, says Mr. Atiyyah. "It should have been done two and a half years ago, to balance these things."

Mr. Sadr conducted two popular revolts against US forces in 2004, and has become kingmaker by supporting Iraq's embattled Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, against efforts by Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and secular parties - as well as, reportedly, the US - to see him go.

Sadr's Mahdi Army militia - which controls the Mustafa Husseiniya raided by US and Iraqi forces Sunday, and is accused of sectarian killings in Baghdad that mostly target Sunni Arabs - can deploy immediately in their thousands, and are often allowed to work unchecked by Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces.

Underscoring the significance of the raid, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, vowed to oversee an investigation. A Husseiniyeh is a Shiite place for prayer and other religious purposes. In Iraq it is considered virtually the same as a mosque.

"It is very important to clarify - an investigation could help defuse tension," says Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish MP who noted that Shiites did not turn up for talks Monday to form the government.

"Always people like Moqtada and extremists will benefit from this in the street, they will get sympathy from ordinary people," says Mr. Othman. "The last three years many things like this have happened: [Americans] hit a wedding ceremony, or hit the wrong house, or get wrong information - some anti-American people want them to make mistakes, to build on that."

The deputy US commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, early Tuesday dismissed reports that a mosque had been hit, or that the 50 Iraqi Special Operations forces, backed up by 25 US advisers, had chosen the wrong target. Besides capturing some weaponry, they released an Iraqi dental technician who had been kidnapped 12 hours earlier.