Friday, February 24, 2006getting worse.
Violence spreads in Iraq as militia groups take to the streets
By Nancy A. Youssef and Tom Lasseter
Knight Ridder Newspapers
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Sectarian killings spread through Iraq on Thursday, leaving more than 120 dead as gunmen patrolled neighborhoods across the country and fears rose that the nation was careening toward open civil war.
Police reported that at least 129 Iraqis had been killed in the 36 hours since a group of men in Samarra - widely presumed to be from Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim population - detonated two bombs that destroyed the golden dome of one of Shiite Islam's most important shrines. Most of the 129 dead were Sunni, police said.
The U.S. military said seven American soldiers had been killed in two roadside bombings Wednesday, both north of Baghdad.
Late Thursday night, state television announced a curfew banning foot and vehicle traffic until 4 p.m. Friday in four central provinces, including predominantly Sunni areas. The extraordinary measure is intended to control crowds at Friday prayers at mosques, a potential flash point for violence, especially at Sunni mosques damaged by the violence of the past two days.
As Iraqi politicians took to the airwaves to calm the populace, many in the nation said they'd lost confidence that the government and its security forces could protect them. Residents from Baghdad to the southern city of Basra said it was now up to private citizens to take up arms.
A resurgence of private armies would be troublesome for U.S. officials, who've hung hopes of withdrawing American troops on establishing a democratically elected government and self-sufficient security forces. Instead, the government struggled
Thursday to assert its authority over a tense situation in a country in which private militias controlled by religious or ethnic groups already have effective control of many cities.
Iraqi government leaders had been in the midst of tortured negotiations over the shape of the new government, more than two months after the elections. The violence promised to delay - or derail - the process, even as Sunni and Shiite religious leaders called for peace. Sunni leaders said Thursday that they'd boycott the discussions to protest the destroyed Sunni mosques.
The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, assured Thursday that the Iraqi security forces could control the situation.
"We're not seeing civil war igniting in Iraq. We're not seeing 77, 80, 100 mosques damaged. We're not seeing death in the streets," Lynch said at a news briefing in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. "We're seeing a competent, capable Iraqi government using their capable Iraqi security force to calm the storm that was inflamed by a horrendous, horrific terrorist attack yesterday."
The next few days could prove to be a crucial test of those forces' capabilities.
Lynch said the U.S. military wasn't stepping up its operational tempo because of the violence: "We don't see a need, based on our read of the battlefield."
While some residents hid in their homes Thursday, fearing mob violence, others grabbed AK-47s and set off to protect their mosques and streets.
In one case, 47 mostly Sunni workers traveling on a bus were stopped at a checkpoint, dragged out of the vehicle and killed northeast of Baghdad, police said. Their bullet-ridden bodies were found on the side of the road.
Residents in predominantly Sunni Samarra blocked police from approaching the damaged shrine as residents cleaned up the site, saying they could protect it better than the security forces.
In the Shiite eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, members of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia - some of whom had boasted the day before of attacking Sunni mosques - surrounded Sunni mosques Thursday, saying they were there to protect them.
In Amariyah, a majority Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad, loudspeakers at Sunni mosques were broadcasting "Allah Akbar" - "God is great" - which some took as a call to arms. The neighborhood was wracked by gunfights that moved from block to block by evening.
Top Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the mosque attacks and said those who participated "were not followers of the family of the prophet." Another Shiite ayatollah, Sheik Mohammed Ali al-Yaqoubi, said followers shouldn't travel to Samarra because the government could control angry worshippers.
After the destruction of the Askariya shrine Wednesday - home to the remains of two of Shiite Islam's 12 imams - more than 50 Sunni mosques were attacked in retaliation, Iraqi police said. One Sunni religious group said that more than 150 were damaged, which couldn't be verified.
The bombing occurred "because of the negligence of the government, and the ministries of defense and interior. They bear full responsibility," said Hassan
Ali Muhi, 24, a businessman from the southern city of Najaf. "We do not trust the officials in this weak government."
In Samarra, three Iraqi journalists who were last seen reporting after the bombing were found dead Thursday. The journalists - including one of Iraq's most prominent female reporters - had been shot multiple times.
Some members of the interim government said they hoped the new government would form soon to help stem the violence.
"I think we will resume talks in a few days," said Mahmoud Othman, a member of a Kurdish political bloc. "We will also try to calm things down and get the (Arab) Sunnis again to sit at the table with everyone."
Othman said the government hadn't done enough to protect the shrine.
Two top government officials, including Alaa al-Safi, the minister of civil society, said Thursday that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's Cabinet had received an intelligence report saying the shrine was being targeted but didn't respond.
Mohammed Askari, a Defense Ministry adviser, said the report indicated only that Shiite shrines in general could be targeted.
Lynch said U.S. forces in charge of securing Samarra didn't hear of any threat.
"If we'd had an indication that something bad was fixing to happen, you can take it to the bank that we would have done something about it," he said.