- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A top Sunni leader said Iraqis were hiding in their homes as enraged Shi’ites gunned down clerics and torched dozens of Sunni mosques across the country in reprisal for the bombing of their revered Askariya “Golden” Mosque in northern Samarra.

“The situation in Baghdad today is really terrible — people are with their guns in the street and they are shooting. You cannot move; they are killing innocent people,” said Sunni leader Saleh al Mutlaq in a telephone interview.

No one took responsibility for the mosque attack, but accusations were flying. Shi’ites were convinced that the largely Sunni-backed insurgency was behind the bombing, while Sunnis put the blame on foreign extremists.

“I don’t think any real Iraqi can do that. It is an outsider act. They want to create civil war in Iraq,” said Mr. al-Mutlaq. “If the Muslim leaders are not wise, I think it will lead to civil war.”

He said Sunnis, who represent about 20 percent of the population, looked like they would not react to the rampage.

“Sunni leaders are telling everybody not to react because [the bombers] are trying to pull the country to that stage, and that is very dangerous,” he said. “Everyone should absorb all these attacks and accept the casualties until we form the government.”

Shi’ite mobs yesterday shot at and set fire to at least 27 Sunni mosques and killed three Sunni clerics and three worshippers as word spread of the destruction of the more-than-1,000-year-old Imam Ali al-Hadi shrine, Agence France-Presse reported.

“We have to imagine the bombing of Notre Dame in Paris or St. Peter’s in Rome,” said Bill Vendley, secretary general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.

The Shi’ite rage erupted despite calls by both Shi’ite and Sunni leaders for restraint after days of bomb attacks that left scores of Shi’ite civilians dead and repeated execution-style killings of Sunnis.

“I don’t think we are at a civil war yet,” said A. Heather Coyne of the United States Institute of Peace, who just returned to Washington after three years in Iraq.

“It is on the brink [but] we have been walking along the brink for a while,” said Miss Coyne, who welcomed the call for calm by Iraq’s top Shi’ite religious and government leaders.

“What I am worried about is that at some point [Shi’ite] militias may have their own political calculation, and if they at some point decide restraint is not going to build up their own power — that is when you get civil war.”

Mr. al-Mutlaq called on the United States to “take real action against the militias” who respond to the three main Shi’ite political parties and who are said to control the Ministry of Interior, Shi’ite sections of Baghdad and southern parts of Iraq.

“If they don’t do it, they will be the loser sooner or later, and Iraq will be the loser sooner or later,” he said.

Even the traditionally more-moderate religious Shi’ite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, suggested that the bombings showed the need for such militias to defend Shi’ite communities.

“If the security agencies are unable to guarantee the necessary security, then the believers are able to do so with God’s help,” he said in a statement, the Associated Press reported.

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