Iraqis remaining cool despite attacks on mosques, minorities

Iman Ali mosque in Najaf. Iraq.
Iman Ali mosque in Najaf. Iraq. Alison Long / Kansas City Star

BAGHDAD — Tempers are cool in Iraq despite a string of bombings that's killed more than 125 people in the past two weeks, fueling hopes that the attacks won't trigger retaliatory killings, at least for now.

The Sunni Muslim group al Qaida in Iraq is the likely culprit in the bombings, which mostly have targeted followers of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr. American and Iraqi officials say the attacks appear to be intended to trigger sectarian violence, as the February 2006 bombing of the al Askari Shiite mosque in Samarra did.

Iraqis so far haven't sought revenge for the attacks, however, which have been aimed at mosques and religious celebrations.

"People understand this game now, and they will not be party to it," said Ali Jawad, 18, who witnessed a series of explosions Tuesday night near a Shiite mosque in Baghdad's Amil neighborhood.

Many Iraqis, including Jawad, suspect that their political parties have a hand in the bombings. They think that the explosions are intended to discredit Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki before January's national elections.

"This is a struggle between the political parties," said Thikrayat Abdulrazaq, 35, a pharmacist who also saw the explosions near the Amil mosque. "They are using means of intimidation to show that the government is not capable of keeping the peace."

Maliki is running on a national unity platform, casting himself as the man who stabilized Iraq while laying the groundwork for the drawdown of American forces. Continued violence would puncture his credibility, some lawmakers said.

"There are some political factions who would stoop low enough to encourage these acts of violence in order to crumble the confidence of people on the street in the ability of Prime Minister al Maliki to run the country," said Izzat al Shabendar, an independent Shiite lawmaker in parliament.

His charges carry some weight because some of Iraq's political parties gained power with their own militias. Sadr's party was linked to the Mahdi Army, which initially formed to protect Shiites from Sunni insurgents but gradually went on the offensive with brutal killings.

The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, another Shiite party, had its own armed wing, the Badr Brigade, and Iraqi Kurds have the peshmerga militia.

"They are showing their muscle to each other, and it is the poor, simple man on the street who is paying the price," Jawad said.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the U.S. military's top spokesman in Iraq and a former brigade commander in Baghdad, said levels of violence in Iraq were at their lowest point since the 2003 invasion despite the high-profile attacks.

"The attacks have the hallmarks of violent extremists who are threatened by a strong, unified population. They prefer to see gains in security and national sovereignty disintegrate. We are not seeing that happen; the people recognize these as attacks against them, not the armed forces or the government," he said.

Two of the biggest recent attacks occurred in the northern city of Mosul, where al Qaida in Iraq remains a force and residents sometimes are caught in turf wars between Kurds and Arabs.

Two truck bombs leveled a Shiite village north of Mosul on Monday, killing at least 30 people, and more than 40 died in Mosul last Friday when a bomb exploded near a mosque.

Seventeen people — most of them Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority — were killed Thursday afternoon northwest of Mosul when two men wearing suicide vests walked into a cafe and detonated their bombs. Targeting minorities is another sign of the sectarian violence that raged in Iraq from 2006 to last year.

In Diyala, a troubled province east of Baghdad, there've been five kidnappings this week. Ransoms from kidnappings sometimes are used to finance attacks, but police officials in Diyala said they weren't sure whether that was happening.

Bombings in Baghdad's Shiite Amil and Sadr City neighborhoods mainly harmed Sadrists, who're considered a hotheaded force in Iraqi politics. They've threatened to revive the Mahdi Army, and as recently as last winter hosted rallies at which thousands of people denounced American forces during negotiations over the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sadrists aren't sounding any of those calls now, even though five Shiite mosques were bombed July 31 and pilgrims from the sect were attacked while they were returning from a holy shrine a week later.

"We don't have any intention" of reviving an armed security force, said Salah al Obaidi, a spokesman for the Sadr Party who's close to Sadr himself.

Obaidi and other Sadrists blame U.S. forces and al Qaida in Iraq for the bombings. They contend that extended violence would justify a lengthier American presence in Iraq. American forces withdrew from Iraqi cities and towns by June 30 in accordance with the timetable in the U.S.-Iraq security pact.

"They try to make a crisis, just to return to their position inside the cities, and they have help by the terrorist groups and Baathists, who want Iraqis to return to square one," charged Hamdullah al Rikabi, a Sadrist leader.

Worshipers at several Sadrist mosques must pray outside since Maliki closed their doors in the aftermath of a crackdown last year on the Mahdi Army. That makes people at the mosques especially vulnerable, but Rikabi said the Sadrists wouldn't invite armed guards to search worshipers at Friday prayers.

"The government should carry the responsibility of the citizens' security," he said. "We do not demand extra security; it's just their duty."

(Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee. Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Jenan Hussein in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Diyala, who can't be named for security reasons, contributed to this report.)


Bombs in northern Iraq leveled 35 homes; death toll unknown

British contractor arrested in two killings in Baghdad

A McClatchy reporter reflects on what war brought to Iraq

2 million pilgrims visit shrine as Iraqi security forces pass test

Huge Shiite march peaceful, but bombs hit elsewhere

Report: Big cuts needed at huge Baghdad embassy built by Bush

Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq

Related stories from McClatchy DC