BAGHDAD — A call by radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr for thousands of Iraqis to march to a twice-bombed shrine in the predominantly Sunni Muslim city of Samarra next week has set off alarms among U.S. and Iraqi officials, who fear the demonstration will worsen sectarian tensions and become a bloodbath.
Sadr said the pilgrimage to the Askariya shrine, whose bombing in February 2006 has been blamed for accelerating sectarian violence, is intended as a display of unity between Sunnis and Shiites. He said the march next Thursday, which marks the birthday July 1 of Fatima, Islam's Prophet Muhammad's daughter, won't incite bloodshed.
Yet many fear that the event, which could see thousands traveling through some of Iraq's most dangerous areas, will turn bloody. A Shiite pilgrimage in March to Karbala, south of Baghdad, produced scores of deaths, including 90 when two suicide bombers detonated themselves near a refreshment tent in the town of Hilla.
"I really don't know what is the benefit of the visit to Samarra, and I don't know why Muqtada insists on sending the innocent to their deaths," said Baghdad resident Hussein al Maliki, 34, a Shiite. "I'm sure the insurgents will do their best to kill as many Shiites as possible during the visit."
For Sadr, the leader of the anti-American Mahdi Army militia, the march poses a test of his popularity. A peaceful demonstration could arm him with broad political clout, which has eluded other Iraqi leaders so far, including Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. A low turnout could underscore the limits of Sadr's ability to marshal ordinary citizens.
In any case, the event promises a volatile mix of weapons and ill will, with members of Sadr's militia gearing up to provide security alongside Iraqi and U.S. forces that are still fighting his militiamen in the south.
Sadr confirmed Thursday that he'll go ahead with the march despite calls to cancel it from both Sunnis and Shiites and reservations within his organization.
"I wish Muqtada would delay or even cancel the visit because it's too dangerous," said one Sadr official who spoke only after being promised anonymity.
Sunnis express terror at the prospect that he'll go through with it, though some think it still could be canceled.
"I can't understand why there has to be a demonstration in which so many innocent simple folk may be targeted and hurt," said Samir Mohammed, 28, of Baghdad, whose mother is Shiite and father Sunni. "Do they want massacres in the streets?"
For Iraqis, the shrine at Samarra has a special place in the violence. In February 2006, presumed Sunni bombers destroyed its dome, accelerating the tit-for-tat pattern of sectarian violence. Hundreds died in the following days, as Shiites retaliated with killings that reached unprecedented levels by October before beginning to decline.
Two weeks ago, explosions toppled the shrine's remaining minarets. Several Sunni mosques were destroyed in the aftermath, though the retaliatory violence was far less than last year's.
No group has claimed responsibility for either bombing, and while U.S. officials have blamed them on the insurgent group al Qaida in Iraq, there's no hard evidence.
Sunni organizations urged Sadr to cancel the march, fearing it would inflame sectarian tensions, but Sadr said Thursday that he was undeterred.
"We call upon all Iraqis, whether tribesmen, dignitaries or officials, to show the good will and cooperate in order for this march to be successful and to be a turning point in improving the fractured relations," he said.
Since his return to public view after a three-month absence, Sadr, whose stronghold is the Baghdad slum of Sadr City and whose militia has been blamed for much of the sectarian violence, has tried to portray himself as a unifying rather than divisive figure.
Maliki's government called on Sadr to delay the pilgrimage until more security forces are in place in Samarra and along the route from Baghdad.
"While we appreciate the motives and feelings of the citizens to hold this peaceful ceremony, we announce that our security measures are not yet completed," a government statement said.
Should the march occur, pilgrims would travel from Baghdad and Shiite cities in southern Iraq through Sunni Arab insurgent strongholds north of the capital to Samarra.
Iraqi security reinforcements from Baghdad were ambushed Monday while driving to Samarra, McClatchy Newspapers has learned. Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kereen Khalaf confirmed that a "regiment" of ministry vehicles was attacked, resulting in two injuries, he said. He declined to say how many vehicles were involved or who attacked.
American and Iraqi military forces remain unable to curtail the violence, despite a security plan launched in February that beefed up checkpoints, brought 28,500 more U.S. troops — who now number about 150,000 — and kicked off military operations to the north and south of Baghdad .
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, is to brief Congress in September on how the security plan is working, which will occur during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election and as support for the war among Americans is at an all-time low.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said Thursday that the U.S. military was girding for the Samarra march.
"Everybody's concerned," Garver said, adding, "To peacefully demonstrate is part of a democracy. We recognize that as part of Iraqi sovereignty."
Saisal, a 50-year-old Sunni who requested that only his first name be used, summed up the sense of doom gripping much of Samarra. He said his family had lived there for hundreds of years. But he and his wife and children sought refuge in Baghdad recently.
"Before, we were proud to have the keys to the sacred shrines in our city," he said. "But . . . I would hand them over to our Shiite brothers so that they would not remain as a permanent threat — a very real threat — to open civil war."
(Drummond reports for The Charlotte Observer. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Sahar Issa, Laith Hamoudi and Jenan Hussein contributed to this article.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007