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Iraq Report: February 24, 2006

24 February 2006, Volume 9, Number 8

SUNNI, SHI'ITE LEADERS PLAYING THE BLAME GAME. Political and religious leaders across Iraq have condemned the 22 February attack on two Shi'ite shrines in Samarra. As they grappled to come to terms with what is seen as a heinous assault on all of Islam, leaders began laying blame on their co-religionists and on the U.S. military.

The attack by insurgents succeeded in skewing the already contentious relations between Sunnis and Shi'a, leaving the country on the brink of chaos. The violence that erupted following the attack led to the deaths of more than 50 Sunnis. Dozens of Sunni mosques were also attacked, some burned to the ground. The offices of Sunni political parties were also targeted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2006).

The attack represents another attempt by insurgents to chip away at any political progress in Iraq. Iraqi political parties have been engaged in contentious talks over the composition of the incoming government for weeks, with Sunnis and Kurds calling for a national-unity government, while some Shi'ite leaders have maintained that as the winners of the parliamentary elections, it is their right to dominate the future cabinet.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was expected to convene parliament on 25 February for a crucial vote on the Shi'ite nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to the premiership.

Now, the government has called a three-day mourning period, and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front has backed out of talks sponsored by Talabani aimed at calming the situation. Hand-in-hand with statements urging national unity, political and religious leaders began laying blame on co-religionists and multinational forces.

Such behavior is not surprising given the atmosphere that preceded the bombing. In addition to the very public political wrangling taking place, tensions were heightened in recent weeks over reports that Shi'ite militiamen linked to the Interior Ministry were engaged in detaining, torturing, and killing Sunni Arabs, including clerics.

Added to the increase in kidnappings and assassinations came a growing awareness of increasing economic woes, marked by mass fuel and electricity shortages.

The release of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad served to deepen schisms between Iraqis and multinational forces -- particularly Danish troops serving in Iraq. Community relations also appeared to suffer from the cartoons; six churches were bombed following the eruption of the cartoon scandal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006). Last week's release of a 2003 videotape depicting British soldiers beating Iraqi youths only fanned the flames, prompting the governorate councils of Al-Najaf and Maysan to cut ties with U.K. forces.

Sunni Arabs Blame 'Occupation,' Political Enemies

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association spread the blame, saying that the presence of multinational forces provoked the attack, while unnamed political leaders fanned the flames of sectarianism.

The association said on 22 February that the "occupation" of Iraq led to the attack. "The association has always warned that as long as the occupation remains, the sanctities of Muslims will be desecrated and targeted, and matters in our country will only go from bad to worse," declared the organization's General Secretariat in a statement posted to its website (

Meanwhile, association spokesman Muthanna Harith al-Dari contended that the attack was "a plot by the occupation and some political groups," and, in an interview with Al-Arabiyah television, pointed to an Internet statement that was circulated on 21 February calling for an uprising in the name of the Shi'a in order to change the political formula in the country. Other association members maintained similar positions in interviews with Arab satellite channels.

A day later, the association indirectly blamed Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for the escalation in violence after al-Sistani called on Shi'a to take to the streets for peaceful demonstrations on 22 February.

In Samarra, mosque speakers blared "Death to America for bringing terrorism to Iraq," egging on demonstrators. In Al-Najaf, demonstrators chanted, "Rise up Shi'a, Shi'a take revenge" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2006).

Speaking to reporters at a 23 February press briefing in Baghdad, association member Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi said: "The Muslim Scholars Association points the finger of blame [for provoking violence] at certain Shi'ite religious authorities for calling for demonstrations when they know very well that our borders are open and our country is infiltrated and, as a result, we cannot control the streets."

Adnan al-Dulaymi, head of the Sunni group Iraqi Accordance Front, told Al-Sharqiyah television on 22 February that "suspicious parties continue to commit acts aimed at planting the seeds of sedition and triggering a civil war" in Iraq, in what appeared to be a veiled reference to Iran.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera television, al-Dulaymi said the "enemies of Iraq" had planned the attack to prevent the formation of a national-unity government. Turning to the Shi'ite demonstrations and attacks on Sunnis that ensued, he said: "It is clear that they were planned and organized acts. Our brothers the Shi'a listen to, and obey their religious authorities. The crowds attacked and burned our mosques."

Iraqi National Dialogue Council Secretary-General Khalaf al-Ulayyan pointed the finger at unnamed foreign intelligence forces in a 23 February press conference in Baghdad, another apparent reference to Iran.

Shi'a Also Blame U.S., Sunni Clerics

Shi'ite ayatollahs were quick to put the blame on Sunni clerics. The Shi'ite news agency reported on 22 February that Ayatollah Muhammad al-Ya'qubi called on Sunni scholars to "bare their responsibility for these heinous crimes when considering their provocative sermons." Ayatollah Muhammad Taqiy al-Mudarrisi also called on Sunni clerics to take a more decisive stand on the violence plaguing Iraq. "Sunni scholars in Iraq must confront the sectarian sedition being fomented by some ignorant people, and their denunciation of these acts must be of a level befitting the crimes being committed," quoted him as saying.

Hizballah claimed in a statement that the U.S. "occupation authorities" and their agents in Iraq were seeking to foment sedition "through their savage aggression" that does exhibit consideration for the dignity and sanctities of Muslims, Al-Manar television reported on 22 February. It was unclear whether the statement was issued by Lebanese Hizballah or Iraq's Hizballah Party.

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was in Lebanon when the attack occurred, blamed all sides. Speaking to Al-Jazeera on 22 February, al-Sadr blamed all parties to the ongoing Iraq conflict for the attack. "It was not the Sunnis who attacked the shrine of Imam Al-Hadi...but rather the occupation; the Takfiris [those who accuse other Muslims of being infidels], Al-Nawasib [a derogatory reference to Sunnis referring to those declare hostilities against others]...and the Ba'athists," he said.

Rejecting 'Foreign Interference'

Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim told reporters at a 22 February press briefing that statements by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad on 20 February calling for a national-unity government gave the green light to terrorists, adding that Khalilzad "shoulders part of the responsibility" for the attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2006).

Prime Minister al-Ja'fari had already criticized Khalilzad's remarks on 21 February, telling reporters that any decision to form a national-unity government would not be done "in compliance with a demand by an ambassador or something like that" but rather because Iraqis choose so. Al-Ja'fari, who has been under pressure at home for weeks to form a national-unity government, lashed out after British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made similar statements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006).

"We don't need anyone to remind us.... The citizens have enough awareness and they can decide on this. We totally reject this. We will not allow any interference in our affairs and sovereignty by any country in the world. We have our own vision, too," Al-Ja'fari said.

Many of Iraq's Shi'a view Khalilzad's statements (similar ones have been made) as part of what they call a blatant U.S. attempt to control the Shi'ite character of the incoming government -- not on the grounds of national unity, but rather on the assumption that the Shi'a are aligned with and under the influence of Iran. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on 23 February.)

PARTIES CALL FOR CALM AFTER GOLDEN MOSQUE BOMBING. The 22 February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Shi'ite Islam's most holy sites, has profoundly shaken Iraq's sensitive Shi'ite-Sunni fault line. Political leaders from across the country have been scrambling to call for calm, even as a wave of anti-Sunni retaliatory violence swept over the country. The unrest comes as political leaders continue to try to forge a government more than two months after the country's December legislative elections.

The Interior and Defense ministries announced a nationwide state of alert late on 22 February, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. The alert went into effect at 6 a.m. on 23 February and requires all off-duty security forces personnel to return to their posts. Extended curfew hours -- from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- have also been put into place in Baghdad and other cities.

Call For Unity

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), called on Iraqis to unite to drive terrorism from the country at a 22 February press briefing in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported.

"There must be unity among Iraq, the Arab nation, the Islamic nation, the Islamic peoples, and Arab peoples to produce a unified bloc against terrorism, which is a dangerous disease in Iraq," al-Hakim said. Al-Hakim stressed that any disruption to the process of trying to form a national-unity government must be temporary.

"Dialogues are supposed to continue," al-Hakim said. "Of course, Sunnis, Shi'ites, and political blocs are grief-stricken.... We cannot continue our dialogue in a normal manner while we suffer from this calamity."

Al-Hakim also commented on remarks by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on 20 February urging Shi'a to form a national-unity government.

"The ambassador's remarks were not made responsibly...," al-Hakim said. "These statements were a reason for more pressure and for giving a green light to terrorist groups. Consequently, [Khalilzad] shoulders part of the responsibility."

Calls For Protection For Sunnis

The Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front said it would not attend a 23 February meeting called by President Jalal Talabani to discuss an easing of tensions, RFI reported.

Iyad al-Samarra'i, a senior official with the front told Reuters that the front boycotted the meeting after the government failed to protect Sunni mosques from the violence that broke out across Iraq following the Samarra bombing.

At least 54 Sunnis, including three imams, have been killed in reprisal attacks across Iraq in the past 24 hours, Iraqi officials announced on 23 February.

In Al-Basrah, gunmen wearing police uniforms stormed a prison and dragged out 11 Sunni Arab detainees who were all later found dead of gunshot wounds. Egyptian and Saudi nationals were among the detainees killed, Al-Jazeera television reported on 22 February.

Tariq al-Hashimi, the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party and a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, said at a 22 February press briefing in Baghdad that Sunni Arabs were under siege in Iraq after Shi'a launched retaliatory attacks in a number of cities, RFI reported.

At Least 50 Sunni Mosques Attacked

Al-Hashimi said at least 29 Sunni mosques had been attacked across Iraq. According to the latest media reports, that number is now at least 50. "All types of weapons, including rockets and hand grenades were used in the attacks," he said.

The Al-Basrah office of the Iraqi Islamic Party was attacked by some 700 people, al-Hashimi said, charging that police had aided the demonstrators in setting fire to the building. He said the party's Baghdad office in Al-Rasafah was occupied by a mob and later burned to the ground, and he blamed the government for failing to provide protection to Sunnis.

"We told [the authorities]: 'You are responsible for security in the country and the situation is getting out of control. This crisis must be contained,'" al-Hashimi said. "Despite these appeals, attacks on mosques increased with time."

The Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, another party in the Iraqi Accordance Front, said in a 22 February statement read by Salih al-Mutlaq that the attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra was carried out by parties that have "absolutely nothing in common with Islam and Muslims," Al-Sharqiyah television reported. "We will not be divided by such criminal and spineless acts that seek to rattle Iraq's security and endanger the lives of innocent Iraqis," the statement said.

The front called on the people of Iraq and the Arab and Islamic world "to stand as one in the face of these vile conspiracies, whose only goal is to destroy the homeland and security of its people." (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on 23 February.)

IS IRAQ ON THE BRINK OF CIVIL WAR? Sectarian tensions in Iraq took a turn for the worse on 22 February when armed men detonated explosives inside the Golden Mosque in Samarra, home to a revered Shi'ite shrine, blowing the roof off the building. Iraqi leaders have scrambled to contain the ensuing retaliatory attacks by Shi'a, amid rising fears that the country could be on the brink of civil war. At least six Sunnis have been killed already in retaliatory attacks, and nearly 30 Sunni mosques attacked.

Two of the 12 Shi'ite imams -- Imam Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868 A.D., and his son, Imam Hasan al-Askari, who died in 874 A.D. -- are buried at the mosque. The complex also contains the shrine of the 12th imam, al-Mahdi, who is said to have gone into hiding through a cellar in the complex in 878, and is expected to return on Judgment Day.

Both the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army and the Mujahedin Shura Council -- an alliance of terrorist groups that includes Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated group (see RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 January 2006) -- are suspected in the attack. Both groups have insurgents operating in Samarra, and have claimed responsibility for attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces there in recent weeks. Just like the assassination of revered Shi'ite Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in Al-Najaf in 2003, no group has claimed responsibility for the Samarra attack.

The Shi'ite Response

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani immediately called for seven days of mourning following the attack, and urged Shi'a to take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations protesting the attack. The cleric, who rarely appears in public, could be seen on Iraqi state television in a meeting with other leading ayatollahs.

The mass demonstrations -- tens of thousands took to the streets of Baghdad, Al-Najaf, Kut, Al-Kufah, and Samarra -- were accompanied by violence. Reprisal attacks against Sunnis were reported across the country.

More violence can be expected. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was in Lebanon as part of a regional tour, headed back to Iraq to join his supporters, who were already out in full force. Media reports have suggested that demonstrators in several cities cited the ongoing occupation as the cause of the attack.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera on 22 February, al-Sadr blamed all parties to the ongoing Iraq conflict for the attack. "It was not the Sunnis who attacked the shrine of Imam Al-Hadi...but rather the occupation; the Takfiris [those who accuse other Muslims of being infidels], Al-Nawasib [a derogatory reference to Sunnis referring to those who declare hostilities against others]...and the Ba'athists," he said. "We should not attack Sunni mosques. I ordered the [Imam] Al-Mahdi Army to protect the Shi'ite and Sunni shrines and to show a high sense of responsibility, something they actually did."

When the dust settles, more questions will come to light. For example, according to media reports, the attackers were dressed in Interior Ministry commando uniforms when they entered the mosque. Sunni Arab leaders have been blaming Interior Ministry forces for dozens of kidnappings and killings of Sunnis in recent months, claiming the ministry's Shi'ite forces use the cover of their uniforms to "arrest" Sunni Arabs who later end up dead on roadsides.

Sporadic media reports last year suggested that Sunni insurgents tied either to the Hussein regime or Al-Qaeda were disguising themselves as security forces to carry out attacks on Sunni Arabs in an attempt to instigate a sectarian war. The reports from Samarra suggest that such tactics may have been employed in this case.

Government Urges Calm

As Shi'a took to the streets in mass protests across Iraq, government officials were quick to condemn the attack, calling a three-day period of mourning. Blaming Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants, officials called for calm, urging Iraqis to remember that the mosque was part of the unified national heritage, and was targeted by insurgents hoping to spark a civil war.

Remarks by President Jalal Talabani indicate the level of concern by government officials. Talabani told reporters at a 22 February press briefing in Baghdad that Iraqis should "strive to avoid any more tension and friction." Saying, "I am here for all Iraqis," Talabani said his door is open to all groups, including insurgents, for dialogue. Speaking about deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's family, Talabani said he offered shelter to Hussein's family when no one else would. "We are generous even with those who are against us."

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad issued a statement saying the United States would contribute to the rebuilding of the mosque, calling the attack a crime against humanity.

Sunni Arab leaders also condemned the attack. Adnan al-Dulaymi, head of the Iraqi Accordance Front, told Al-Arabiyah television that the denunciation by groups such as the Sunni Waqf (Endowment) Office, the Iraqi Islamic Party, and the Muslim Scholars Association have been ignored by Shi'ite protesters. Al-Dulaymi demanded the government call a curfew to prevent attacks on Sunni mosques, and said mobs had already attacked mosques in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, and Al-Diwaniyah.

The government's ability to control the crisis in the coming days will be key to staving off a broader civil conflict. Tensions were already high in Iraq before the attack, as diverse groups faced off over the composition of the incoming cabinet. With the majority of Iraqis off work during the government-declared mourning period, violence could spread even further, especially following Friday prayers on 24 February, making it difficult for Iraqi and multinational forces to contain the situation in many of Iraq's multiconfessional cities this time. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on 22 February.)