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Iraq: Sunni-Shi'ite Political Rift Intensifies

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> Two children were killed last night when this Shi'ite mosque was bombed Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi might well have been pleased with the turn of events this week in Iraq. While his insurgency cannot take sole credit for the escalation of tension between Sunnis and Shi'a, his 18 May statement justifying the killing of innocent Muslims and labeling Iraq's Shi'a as collaborators who have betrayed the Muslim cause has added momentum to a rift that appears to be reaching crisis proportions. Meanwhile, attempts by the transitional Shi'ite-led government to respond appear to have been drowned out by political accusations on both sides.

Harith al-Dari, head of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association, issued a call on 18 May for all Sunni mosques to close for three days following noon Friday prayers on 20 May to protest the recent arrests of Sunni imams and the storming of mosques by Iraqi security forces. Adnan Muhammad Salman al-Dulaymi, president of the Sunni Al-Waqf Council, backed the decision following a meeting with Sunni clerics at the Nida Al-Islam Mosque in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 19 May. The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party has also supported the closure.

Al-Dari accused the Badr Brigades, the armed wing of the Shi'ite-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), of being behind the recent assassinations of Sunni clerics in Iraq, and said that Badr forces have targeted "anyone it felt opposed it, be they armed or unarmed." SCIRI has close ties to Iran, and the Badr Brigades were reportedly trained and armed by Iranian intelligence from their inception in the 1980s.

The Badr Brigades, which officially changed its name to the Badr Organization following the disarming of militias under the Coalition Provisional Authority (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 21 September 2003), has rejected the allegations, claiming that statements made by al-Dari and his son, Muthanna Harith al-Dari, "encourage terrorism and set a low price on Iraqi blood." "Muthanna Harith al-Dari perceives al-Zarqawi's terrorist and criminal operations as justified and religiously warranted," Badr Organization Secretary-General Hadi al-Amir, said in an 18 May interview with Al-Arabiyah television.

Shi'ite Political Council Secretary-General Husayn al-Musawi also rejected the allegations, telling RFI on 19 May: "It is impossible that Badr [Organization] or the Iraqi government perpetrated any killing of any person. The government is now able to arrest any criminal, put him in prison, and proceed him to justice, thus performing its natural role.... We wish that the tongues of the Muslim Scholars Association, or of people with some social and political reputation in the country, be not inciting sectarian strife."

Media reports indicate that armed gangs disguised as police and National Guard forces may be behind a string of attacks on both Sunnis and Shi'a across Iraq. While Sunni Islamist militants may have perpetrated the attacks in an effort to spark ethnic strife, some reports indicate that the perpetrators could in fact be members of the Badr Organization bent on seeking revenge against its perceived enemies, including rebel Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers clashed with police in Al-Kufah following Friday prayers on 6 May.

That same day, the Muslim Scholars Association accused police, and later the Badr Organization, of killing 14 Sunni farmers who were abducted as they set up a farmers' market near Al-Sadr City the day before. The victims all hailed from the Al-Dulaymi tribe in Mada'in. That town was the scene of an intensive search in April for masses of Shi'a purportedly kidnapped by Sunnis in the city in April. The kidnapped victims were never found, although more than 50 bodies later turned up in nearby Al-Suwayrah on the Tigris River, leading transitional President Jalal Talabani to connect the two incidents. Interim Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib accused "terrorist groups and Iranian intelligence" of instigating the kidnapping claims in an effort to cause sectarian strife. Meanwhile, dozens of bodies have been discovered in recent days in Baghdad and surrounding cities in groups ranging from 10 to 40, all bound and shot execution-style, in what appears to be tit-for-tat killings.

The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party has also criticized what it described as "militias and armed groups that meddle in the security of citizens" in an 8 May statement published in its weekly newspaper, "Dar al-Salam." The statement criticized the transitional government for not being more inclusive of Sunnis in its distribution of cabinet posts, and called on the government to "ease the campaign of arrests and raids" that it said "contributed to the aggravated security situation." Sunni groups, including the National Dialogue Council, an umbrella organization comprising the Islamic Party and 30 other Sunni groups, have described the posts given to Sunnis as marginal, while council head Fakhri al-Qa'isi has labeled Sunni Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi, a former Ba'athist, a "double agent."

As Sunnis grew more vocal in their criticism of mosque raids and arrests this week, Defense Minister al-Dulaymi addressed the press on 16 May, saying the army and National Guard will be banned from entering mosques, churches, and university campuses. "There are those who are donning military uniforms that are similar to those of the Defense Ministry or...those worn by the members of the Interior Ministry, and they are then carrying out terrorist operations. Then they inform people that they are from the National Guard.... These people are terrorists and do not represent this ministry." Al-Dulaymi also vowed to interrogate and release the mosque imams in custody as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, Muslim Scholars Association head al-Dari told that Iraqi police and Interior Ministry commandos from the Wolf Brigade were inflicting a "state terror policy" on Sunnis. The Muslim Scholars Association also blamed the Wolf Brigade for the assassination of Sheikh Hasan al-Nu'aimi, who was detained and later found dead.

For al-Zarqawi, the crisis supports his goal of destroying the Shi'ite hold on government and helps promote his call to Sunnis to rise up against the Shi'a. In an audiotape released on 18 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2005), the avowed terrorist leader criticized Shi'ites for their "allegiance" to multinational forces and what he termed their betrayal of Islam and the Sunni fight.

In an attempt to disparage the prewar Shi'ite opposition to Saddam Hussein and point to what he sees as hypocrisy by Iraqis who criticize his insurgent movement, al-Zarqawi listed a number of operations purportedly carried out by the Badr Brigades in the 1980s and 1990s against the Hussein regime that left scores of civilians dead. He asked why those attacks were never condemned. "The reality is those [Shi'ite hypocrites] do not care about the welfare of the Muslims or their lives. Their only objective is to please their masters among the apostates and the Crusaders," he claimed, adding, "Has anyone ever dared to speak up and expose the crimes of these military rejectionists, like the Badr forces?" He also accused the Badr Brigades of displacing Sunni families from southern Iraq, occupying Sunni mosques, killing doctors and teachers, and of "joining the Crusaders in raping Sunni women."

The transitional government has come out in recent days with a number of directives aimed at curbing the violence, but it has yet to convey a forceful stance on the growing sectarian rift. Al-Dulaymi reversed his order banning mosque raids on 18 May, saying that the army will attack mosques and places of worship if they accommodate terrorists or stockpile weapons. Meanwhile, the government announced its intention to reinstate capital punishment, and said it would push to enact laws to punish those who provide logistical support for terrorist networks. The laws would also prosecute citizens who fail to share information about terrorist networks with the government.

U.S. military officials reportedly urged Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari last week to take decisive action against the escalating violence before the situation spirals to worsening levels. But it is unclear whether the transitional government, only a few weeks in office, has the capacity to meet that demand. Several government officials last week declined requests from RFI for interviews on the Al-Qa'im operation, and only came forward for press interviews at the week's end. For his part, al-Ja'fari appeared more preoccupied with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's visit to Baghdad this week than with the escalating violence, and has since left Iraq for meetings with Turkish officials in Ankara.

For the latest news and analysis on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".