In front of a crush of Friday worshipers in one of this city's most historic Shiite mosques, Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi stoked the already strong sectarian fervor.
Sunni extremists "want to strike your religion, sect, and faith. They trespass on the shrines of our Imams," he told the rapt audience that cheered in response. "We can only apologize to our people because … these grave and stunning acts continue to occur."
As Sunni insurgents blow up Shiite shrines and Shiite militiamen burn Sunni mosques, leaders from both sides are rushing to be seen as this country's protectors of the religious sites. Protecting the mosque now appears to be one of the few tools for politicians to gain support among a populace that has seen little progress.
Mr. Abdul-Mahdi's fiery address was delivered last week at the Khulani mosque, soon after it was hit by a deadly bomb attack. That explosion followed the second strike on the revered Shiite shrine in Samarra. Now, the US military is warning that Al Qaeda will probably target other mosques in the coming weeks to further inflame sectarian passion.
Greater US military pressure on Al Qaeda south of Baghdad and in Diyala Province may be one cause of the increase, says one commander. "We are taking the fight to the enemy," and the response from Al Qaeda is to inflame sectarianism by attacking Shiite holy places, says Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division and Multi-National Forces in Babel, Karbala, and Najaf provinces, home to some of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines.
Over the past 30 days, six of Iraq's most important Shiite and Sunni mosques and shrines have been severely damaged in bombings. Numerous other smaller sites have been attacked as well.
"They have failed in everything. They have failed in building a nation. They have no program and they have nothing to offer people," says Faleh Jabar, a Beirut-based Iraqi scholar and analyst, referring to Iraqi officials. "The only thing left is for them to prove their ability in defending the sect, whether it's Sunni or Shiite."
At a rally last week in Najaf, Ammar al-Hakim, the son of the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) party to which Abdul-Mahdi belongs, charged government negligence in protecting the Samarra shrine.
In an interview Sunday at his party's headquarters, Mr. Hakim said the government failed to act on intelligence that indicated the shrine was going to be attacked again. "There was official correspondence regarding this matter but nonetheless nothing was done to prevent the attack."
Shiite zeal in protecting sacred sites and the use of the issue to score political gains was on full display Friday during prayers at the mausoleum and mosque of Sayyed Idriss, one of the prophet's great grandchildren, in central Baghdad.
Hussein al-Jazairi and fellow partisans of hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's movement are in charge of security at the shrine. "This is all our responsibility. If we do not protect people, they will not come to Friday prayers, which is crucial in uniting us," says Mr. Jazairi, juggling two walkie-talkies and prayer beads.
Alleys were blocked with barrels and concrete barriers. At the gate, everyone was searched as a guard with an AK-47 watched. Dozens of men and veiled women trickled into the shrine's main prayer hall. The women sat behind the men under the clatter of ceiling fans. Sheikh Ali al-Saadi, a Sadrist, emerged from a side door. He was draped in a white shroud, which signifies a desire for martyrdom. He is flanked by members of Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Sadrists took over Sayyed Idriss after the first Samarra bombing in February 2006 to extend their influence and power in Karrada, an area traditionally controlled by rivals, the Hakims.
Sheikh Saadi's sermon was subdued but later in an interview he denied anyone from the Mahdi Army ever targeted a Sunni mosque in retaliation to attacks on Shiite shrines. He and his men blamed the US military and their "agents" for blowing up mosques, including the one in Samarra, to inflame sectarian passions and prolong their presence in Iraq.
"We have evidence, and the day will come for us to reveal it," says Saadi, adding that everyone is committed to Sadr's call for a pilgrimage to Samarra on July 5 to protest the shrine bombing. "We will carry olive branches and wear white shrouds."
The Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars issued a statement Monday calling on Shiites not to respond to Sadr's call because flocking to Samarra, a predominantly Sunni town, would "stoke the flames of discord."
Many hard-line Sunnis have a different take on the war of mosques. They say it is all part of a "Persian plot" being executed by Iran's alleged agents within the government. "They want the rest of Iraq to join Karbala, Najaf, and Qom," says Sheikh Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, one of the association's leaders, in an interview last Thursday, naming Shiite holy cities in Iraq and Iran. "Attacks on mosques will increase because they have a strategy of eradicating all Sunni mosques in Iraq."
The association's website features a video of the destruction of the minaret, considered the tallest in Iraq, at the Sunni Fatah Pasha mosque in Baghdad. It was hit four days before the twin minarets in Samarra were blown up on June 13. Kubaisi also claims that the Mahdi Army has taken over at least 130 Sunni mosques in Iraq and has either shut them down or converted them to Shiite ones. The Sadrists flatly deny this charge.
Jabar, from Beirut, described the group's claims as "very dangerous and inflammatory…. This is how they rally Sunnis in the region to provide recruits and funding for the insurgency."