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Attacks test Iraq's Shiites

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

By David Enders, / April 10, 2006


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.

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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.

"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.