PRAGUE, 24 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The government has extended the normal overnight curfew in Baghdad to 4 p.m. today in an effort to reduce communal tensions during the Muslim day of prayer.
Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau chief Moayed al-Haidari said that the curfew does not mean everyone must remain indoors. But it does translate into restricted movement and a visibly heightened police and army presence in the capital.
"The situation in Baghdad today in general now is that it is not a normal day," al-Haidari said. "Personally, I could not find a way to reach my office. There are a lot of soldiers and police at checkpoints in the street. At the same time, some civilian people feel more relaxed today and you can find some children playing football in the narrow streets, and they are happy because there is not such heavy traffic today as is usual on most days."Curfew Confusion
But al-Haidari said that many people are still only now learning that the curfew exists. That is because it was announced late on 23 February on state media, "so most of the people of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities didn't know that there is a new curfew," he said. "The time of the curfew will be the same time as the midday Friday prayers. The government made this decision to prevent a new collapse of the security situation."
Members of both the Sunni and Shi'ite community have been killed in tit-for-tat killings that have also seen reprisals against Sunni mosques.
The confusion over the curfew makes it unclear how many people will modify their usual Friday schedule.
Officials say the curfew is intended to reduce crowds at the mosques, which could be potential flashpoints for new sectarian violence.
Today is the first Friday since the bombing of a key Shi'ite shrine in Samarra on 22 February. The Golden Mosque is one of the four most important Shi'ite holy sites in Iraq and the attack has sparked waves of violence across the country.
So far, the death toll from the violence stands at more than 130. Members of both the Sunni and Shi'ite community have been killed in tit-for-tat killings that have also seen reprisals against Sunni mosques.Sectarian Political Split
The violence has also sparked a major political crisis, with the main Sunni political group in Iraq withdrawing from talks to form a government.
The Iraqi Accordance Front broke off talks with Shi'ite religious parties that are set to dominate the new parliament, accusing them of igniting the anti-Sunni backlash that followed the bombing.
Analysts say that the breaking off of negotiations is likely to be only temporary. But it underlines the fragility of Iraq's political system and shows how easily it can be sabotaged by groups deliberately trying to provoke communal violence.
Shi'ite women in Iran protested the mosque bombing today (epa)
The authors of the attack on the Samarra mosque remain unknown but Iraqi and U.S. officials blame Al-Qaeda-inspired militant groups.
"The attack on the [Shi'ite] mosque in Samarra triggered a backlash against the Sunni community which has gone very deeply into the Sunni Arab psyche in Iraq, where they feel that the whole new order that was created by the downfall of the [Saddam Hussein] regime is really configured against them," said Joost Hiltermann, a regional expert with the International Crisis Group based in Amman.
"And they have been persuaded in the last few months to join the constitutional and political process but their participation remains extremely fragile and when they see that there are reprisals against Sunni Arabs for being Sunni Arabs they go back into their siege mentality," Hiltermann added.Radicals' Veto Power
Hiltermann said that this sectarian siege mentality -- which can also be found on the Shi'ite side -- gives insurgents a potential veto power over efforts to form a new national-unity government. Such a government is considered by many observers the only way Iraq can emerge from its continual security problems.
"The insurgents have gained real veto power over the political process in a way, by pushing the button of violence which sets the Shi'ites up for revenge despite calls by their own religious leaders for restraint and then that puts the [Sunni Arab politicians] in a very difficult position where they cannot cave in before their more radical constituents and have to retreat from the political process in order to come back with additional concessions from the [Shi'ite] side," Hiltermann said.
The analyst warned that if such a cycle is not broken it could lead the country closer to civil war. He noted that two years ago, insurgents targeted the Shi'ite community in an effort to jump start a civil war but the attacks largely went unanswered. In recent years, however, there are increasing reports of reprisal attacks on Sunnis by militias attached to Shi'ite political parties.
The Golden Mosque before the 22 February bombing (courtesy photo)
UNDER THE GOLDEN DOME: The Iraqi city of SAMARRA is the site of two major Shi'ite shrines. Consecrated in 852, the Golden Mosque is said to hold the remains of two Shi'ite imams: Ali al-Naqi and his son, Hasan al-Askari. A second shrine marks the place where the hidden -- or 12th -- imam, al-Mahdi, son of Hasan, went into hiding.
Imam Ali and Hasan were imprisoned in Samarra, the capital of the Abbasid Dynasty, by Al-Mutawakkil Ala Allah Jafar bin al-Mu'tasim (821-861), who is considered the last great Abassid caliph.
According to historical accounts, al-Mutawakkil felt threatened by the growing influence of Shi'ite Islam and Imam al-Naqi, who was based in Medina. Al-Mutawakkil thus brought Imam Ali and Hasan to Samarra in 848 and imprisoned them inside a military fort. Henceforth they became known as al-Askari (military) because of the location of their imprisonment.
Following al-Mutawakkil's death in 861, his successor had Imam Ali poisoned in 868. Hasan died in 874.
Imam Ali al-Naqi -- the 10th Shi'ite imam, commonly referred to as Imam Ali al-Hadi -- and his son, Hasan al-Askari, the 11th imam, are buried under the Golden Dome, which was a gift from Persian ruler Nasr al-Din Shah (1848-96). The dome's construction was completed in 1905. Also buried in the shrine are Hakimah Khatun, the sister of Imam Ali, and Nargis Kahtun, Imam al-Mahdi's mother.
The second shrine in the complex marks the place where Shi'a believe Imam al-Mahdi (b. 868), the 12th and final imam, went into hiding. According to Shi'ite tradition, Imam al-Mahdi, the son of Hasan al-Askari descended into a cellar under the present-day shrine and disappeared. Shi'a believe that he never died, and he will return on Judgment Day.
MORE: For more information on Shi'ite and Sunni sectarianism in Iraq, see:
Sunni-Shi'ite Tensions High On Eve Of Arab Conference
A Nation Finds Itself At A Crossroads
The Growing Sunni-Shi'a Divide
Ayatollah Al-Sistani Moves From Religious To Political Role