A wave of sectarian attacks that swept Iraq last week and this weekend is giving new steam to hard-liners of all stripes.
From mosques to party headquarters, extremists have seized on the events to drive a wedge further between Shiite and Sunni, laying down tough challenges to US and Iraqi forces.
At least 600 Iraqis died in the violence last week, the deadliest period since the Baghdad security plan started in February.
While US and Iraqi officials say that Baghdad is quieter, violence has grown outside the capital. Bombings in Tal Afar provoked Shiite policemen to kill dozens of Sunnis in retaliation. Insurgents targeted other Shiite areas, and in Mosul on Sunday bombs exploded at an Iraqi Army base. In March, some 1,861 Iraqis were killed, 216 more than in February.
The surge in attacks is part of a bid by militantSunnis to undermine the Shiite-led government, says Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) based in Amman, Jordan. "The takfeeris have stepped up their attacks to show that they control the streets and do whatever they want," he says referring to Sunnis who consider Shiites infidels and attack them.
Mr. Hiltermann also says Sunni militants want to provoke Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army to retaliate. That, he says, would expose them to US forces that have been pursuing and arresting several prominent members of the Mahdi Army. The militia is implicated in sectarian killing and accused of using Iranian-made bombs against US troops.
While the sectarian vitriol appeared to reach new heights over the weekend, US lawmakers who were in Iraq Sunday said there was indeed progress as a result of the Baghdad security plan.
"The American people are not getting the full picture of what's happening here. They're not getting the full picture of the drop in murders, the establishment of security outposts throughout the city, the situation in Anbar Province, the deployment of additional Iraqi brigades that are performing well, and other signs of progress having been made," said Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential hopeful from Arizona.
US commander Gen. David Petraeus said in a statement Friday that Al Qaeda elements in Iraq were carrying out "barbaric actions" to fuel sectarian strife and undermine the "successes" of improving Baghdad security.
Americans launch new police initiative
The retaliatory killing by Shiite Iraqi police in Tal Afar after Tuesday's bombing that killed 152 people, according to the Iraqi government, underscores the uphill battle faced by the US in training the country's national and local police. Despite much effort and money spent over the past few years, police forces are still prone to sectarianism. Many in Shiite parts of the country are believed to be beholden to Mr. Sadr's militia.
Capt. Mario Oliva, a US military officer involved in another retraining program for the national police dubbed "Re-blue," summed up the challenge as follows: "There is so much demand for police that they just hired people off the street. We need to polish them, get them in the right uniform, and teach them how to protect and not hurt their own people."
But the ICG's Hiltermann says that the problem lies deeper than that.
He says Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government was unwilling and incapable of rooting out sectarianism and that it was "folly" for the US to expect otherwise. "They are dysfunctional and too weak to do it. They are part of the sectarian conflict. This government is so much a part of the problem that you can't ask it to reach out to the other side, especially Sunnis."
Indeed, the Tal Afar bombing has provided fodder for Sunni hard-liners who oppose the Maliki government.
"This massacre just confirms what the association has always warned about, that is the complicity between government forces and militias in the pursuit of a hateful sectarian policy that serves only the interests of the enemies of our nation," said the Association of Muslim Scholars in a statement issued last week.
The Association's spokesman, Sheikh Bashar al-Faydhi, said in a phone interview from Amman that his group was willing "to issue a call to the resistance to lay down its weapons if America suspended its support for the current government and put a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops."
Another vociferous government critic, Sunni parliamentarian Adnan al-Dulaimi, also put out a statement warning that events in Tal Afar "threaten to push matters into the abyss, and the government and the US occupation forces must realize the gravity of these crimes, otherwise all hell will break loose ... and the flames will consume everyone."
Although the Iraqi government has sent its Army to keep the peace in Tal Afar and promised to prosecute the policemen involved in the revenge slayings, emotions were still high amid concerns that the fallout from events in Tal Afar would continue to reverberate throughout the country.
Families of the slain Sunnis were so terrified to go back to town that they decided to bury their loved ones in a nearby village, says Mohammed Taher, an official with the Iraqi Turkmen Front in Mosul.
"I blame the government and no one else," says Mr. Taher, a Sunni.
Sectarian sermons from the street
"I tell everyone from this pulpit that we will have our say if these massacres do not stop," warned Sheikh Suhail al-Uqabi in a sermon Friday held in the open air in Sadr's bastion of Sadr City in Baghdad.
"Labeik Moqtada!" shouted the crowd in unison, signifying that they were ready to follow the black-turbaned cleric.
In a clear show of strength and defiance, thousands of Sadr's partisans had gathered for the prayers at the end of Falah street in the heart of the district amid very tight security by Mahdi Army gunmen.
Sheikh Uqabi then read a statement by Sadr calling for a rally against the US presence to be held in the shrine city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, April 9, the fourth anniversary of the fall of Hussein's regime. A similar protest that attracted hundreds of thousands was held two years ago in Baghdad.
"I renew my demand for the withdrawal of the occupier from our land ... because this will mean the stability of Iraq, a victory for peace and Islam and a defeat for terror and infidels," read the statement.
Sadr, who has not appeared in public since the start of the security crackdown and is believed by US officials to be in neighboring Iran, along with other senior members of his movement, accused Washington of fomenting sectarian strife and even orchestrating attacks against civilians so that it can justify its presence in the country.
Uqabi then told everyone to remain in their place for five minutes after the prayers to honor those killed in the bombings last week.
"These events are proof that the security plan must be in the hands of Iraqis [and not the Americans].... The Sadr movement is being targeted while the extremists are free to roam the country and do what they will," says Sadrist member of parliament Falah Shanshal who attended the prayers.
US troops have been patrolling Sadr City and conducting raids against the hideouts of militiamen affiliated to Sadr since reestablishing a permanent presence there in early March. Mr. Maliki's alliance with the Sadrists may be strained further should attacks against Shiites and the stepped up pressure on Sadr's movement continue.
• Abbas al-Sarai contributed to this report.