- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

BAGHDAD — Suicide bombers, one dressed as a woman, blasted worshippers as they left a Shi’ite mosque after Friday prayers, killing at least 79 persons and wounding more than 160 in the deadliest attack in Iraq this year.

The horrific explosions at the Buratha mosque in north Baghdad are likely to stoke the already raw tensions between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims. The U.S. ambassador warned in an interview published yesterday that sectarian civil war in Iraq could enflame the entire Middle East.

Rescuers raced to and from the mosque, ferrying bodies from the walled compound on blood-soaked wooden pushcarts and loading them on the beds of pickup trucks. City officials urged Iraqis to donate blood for the wounded.

Police said there were two suicide bombings at the mosque.

But Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, the cleric at the mosque and one of the country’s leading politicians, said there were three bombings. One assailant came through the women’s security checkpoint and blew up first, he said. He said another raced into the mosque’s courtyard while a third tried to enter his office before they both detonated their explosives.

Mr. al-Sagheer accused Sunni politicians and clerics of waging “a campaign of distortions and lies against the Buratha mosque, claiming that it has Sunni prisoners and mass graves of Sunnis.”

Mainstream Sunni Arab politicians condemned the bombings, calling on all religious and political leaders to come together in the interest of national unity.

“Bloodshed is forbidden,” Sunni lawmaker Adnan al-Dulaimi told Iraqi television.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military reported the deaths of four more American service members, including one who died from wounds suffered in Baghdad. Two Marines and a soldier were killed Thursday.

The mosque attack occurred as worshippers left Friday prayers, the main weekly religious service. Several hours earlier, the Interior Ministry warned the public to avoid crowds near mosques and markets because of a car-bomb threat.

“I heard an explosion after we finished praying,” said Jamal Hussein, a 40-year-old teacher who was one of the wounded worshippers. “Next thing, I found myself in the hospital,” he said from his hospital bed, his left arm wrapped in bandages.

Police Lt. Col. Falah al-Mohammedawi, who gave the casualty figures, said one of the suicide attackers wore a black abaya, the full-length robe worn by devout Muslim women. Women have carried out suicide bombings on Israeli targets and last year on a hotel in Jordan, but only rarely in Iraq.

On Nov. 9, 2005, Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian woman, blew herself up near an American military patrol after entering Iraq from Syria a month earlier. She was the only person killed in the bombing.

The attack on the mosque was the second in as many days against a Shi’ite religious site. On Thursday, a car bomb exploded about 300 yards from the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, killing 10 persons. Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is the most sacred city in Iraq for Shi’ite Muslims.

No group claimed responsibility for either attack, although suspicion fell on Sunni extremists responsible for numerous bombings against Shi’ite civilians. The Buratha mosque is affiliated with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country’s main Shi’ite party.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned that Iraq faced the possibility of sectarian civil war that could engulf the Middle East.

“That’s a possibility if we don’t do everything we can to make this country work,” he said. “What’s happening here has huge implications for the region and the world.”

The ambassador said the best way to prevent such a conflict was to form a government including representatives of all groups. However, those efforts have stalled over Sunni and Kurdish opposition to the Shi’ite candidate to lead the government, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Mr. al-Jaafari has refused to step aside, and his Shi’ite coalition has been reluctant to reconsider his nomination for fear of splintering the alliance.

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