Attacks test Iraq's Shiites

Increasing attacks on Shiite civilians complicate Sunni-Shiite political reconciliation.

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With each new suicide attack on Shiite civilians - the most recent killed 90 last Friday at a mosque run by a leading Shiite party - the United States' ability to shape Iraq's political development grows a little weaker and the country's simmering sectarian strife burns a little hotter.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's goal of disarming Iraq's Shiite militias, say analysts, is becoming increasingly difficult. And Shiite politicians are angrier at the ambassador's demands they make concessions to Sunni Arabs in order to form a new government.

Shiite political leaders continue to insist that they are willing to talk with Sunni Arabs and say that forming a government and maintaining national cohesion are priorities. But they are also being pressed by frustrated constituents to unleash Shiite militias in revenge attacks, something that is happening with greater frequency.

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"Sunni (fighters) want to return Iraq to Saddam's formula," said Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), in a speech Sunday in which he balanced calls for unity with reminders about the extreme suffering of Iraq's Shiites under Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime. "This nation will not fall into the trap of sectarian war that is being pushed by [Sunni extremists]."

The Friday attack at Baghdad's landmark Buratha Mosque was carried out by three suicide bombers, one of whom was a woman, Iraqi police said. The mosque doubles as a political office for SCIRI.

Jalaladin al-Sagheer, a senior SCIRI political leader who was leading prayers when the mosque was attacked, lashed out at senior Sunni Arab politicians in the wake of the attack, alleging they were feeding sectarian divisions with a disinformation campaign against SCIRI.

In particular, he singled out newspapers controlled by Sunni Arab politician Adnan al-Dulaimi and the Muslim Scholar's Association, the principal umbrella group for Sunni clerics for, in his words, "broadcasting lies" about SCIRI.

The papers have claimed the Buratha Mosque was being used to imprison and execute Sunnis by the Badr Brigade, SCIRI's militia.

A junior SCIRI official in the press office at the mosque echoed Mr. Sagheer's complaints. But the official, who only identified himself as Abu Qurar, took them much further, reflecting the anger in Sciri's rank and file.

After blaming the Muslim Scholars Association and its leader Harith al-Dari and Dulaimi for the attack, he was asked what should be done to prevent further attacks. "They should be killed,'' he said.

The Muslim Scholar's Association has complained bitterly about Shiite death squads being run out of the Interior Ministry, which is led by a former Badr commander and is packed with the militia's loyalists.

Iraq's bloody sectarian politics are also now causing tremors further afield. Neighboring Sunni Arab regimes, who looked on Saddam Hussein's Iraq as "one of us," are worrying Iraq's Shiite leaders are shifting the country's political orbit east, toward Shiite and ethnically Persian Iran.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a rare interview with Al-Arabiya broadcast Saturday, reflected the common view of Sunni Arabs that the country's Shiites aren't patriots. "Most of the Shiites are loyal to Iran and not to the countries they are living in,'' he said. The leaders of Sciri and the country's other main Shiite group, the Dawa party, lived in exile in Iran during Hussein's rule, and many of their militiamen were trained there.

Mubarak's analysis of Iraq's current problems laid most of the blame at the feet of Hussein for creating an unjust society that fed sectarian and ethnic hatred. Now, saying Iraq is "almost" in a civil war, Mubarak sees few solutions.

"The situation is uneasy and I don't know how Iraq will be kept together ... Iraq is almost close to destruction," Mubarak said.

His comments drew almost immediate condemnation from Iraqi officials. Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was soon on television, flanked by ethnic-Kurdish President Jalal Talabani and a Sunni Arab parliamentarian in a symbol of unity, reading a statement.

"We are astonished that Egypt identifies Iraq's security problems as a civil war. Our people are still far away from any sectarian conflict," he read. Nevertheless, Mr. Jaafari himself has been at the center of a bitter and sectarian political battle that has prevented the formation of a government over three months since the country's parliamentary election.

He's been blamed by Sunni Arabs for the death squads and torture centers run out of the Interior Ministry, and Ambassador Khalilzad has lobbied for him to be withdrawn as the Shiite's choice for prime minister, arguing he's too sectarian a character to help stabilize Iraq.

But Jaafari and his supporters have dug in their heels, complaining that US meddling has strengthened Sunni insurgents and slowed negotiations to form a government by raising Sunni Arab hopes that they will be able to get more political clout.

In the midst of the political disputes, the importance of private militias like the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has emerged as an important ally of Jaafari, has grown.

The Mahdi Army, for instance, which fought a number of pitched battles against US troops in 2004, has reasserted control over its stronghold in Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb with 2 million residents.

The US says it's working hard to take the gun out of Iraqi politics. "We're working in great coordination with the Iraqi government to allow them to implement plans to stop militias,'' Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters last Thursday.

When a government is finally formed, "one of the first plays we're going to make is talking to them about getting rid of the militias," General Lynch said.

But on the Shiite street, the militias are increasingly seen as the protectors of Shiite civilians. "The Mahdi Army is an army to serve Shiites,'' says Khadhim Atia Khadim, a used-clothes salesman in Khadhamiya market, near the city's most important Shiite shrine. "They are helping to protect the families that have been'' displaced by sectarian fighting. "They are fighting the terrorists."

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