- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

The bombing of the Shi’ite Golden Mosque shrine managed to do what years of killings, kidnappings and bombings had failed to do — it brought the bitter rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites to the street level, Iraqis said yesterday.

“Previously, when I talked to Shi’ites about bombs and so on, everyone was upset. But the reaction to the mosque war is different,” said one middle-class Iraqi who lives in Baghdad. He asked that his name not be used, fearing for his life.

“Every Shi’ite is now saying the Sunnis deserve it — the thinking has changed since this event, and I know what I am talking about,” he said by telephone from Baghdad.

“All three years of killing, kidnapping and bombings never managed to start a civil war, but this mosque bombing, it is the trigger for civil war,” he said. “It will get worse day by day.”

Until now, the divide between the two groups largely has been about political power, while in local neighborhoods Shi’ites and Sunnis have continued to marry each other, work side by side and commiserate together over the violence.

An Iraqi woman in her 60s, who also asked not to be identified, said destruction of the ancient shrine in Samarra somehow had changed the dynamic between those Iraqis who, until now, had tried to live together in peace.

“There is a change between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and no one can stop it now. It is very bad … we tried to avoid such a thing, but now it has begun. I think this is the beginning of a civil war,” she said.

The U.S. military played down those fears.

“We’re not seeing civil war igniting in Iraq,” U.S. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters yesterday.

He said he could not confirm reports that more than 100 Sunni mosques had been attacked and dozens of people executed in the aftermath of the Golden Mosque bombing.

Gen. Lynch said the Iraqi government extended last night’s curfew in Baghdad until 4 p.m. today, recalled all Iraqi security forces to duty and directed detailed security around shrines and mosques.

Sunni and Shi’ite leaders were calling for calm, he said, refusing to give in to “terrorists that are intent in inflaming sectarian violence here in Iraq and across the region.”

For the time being, said A. Heather Coyne of the United States Institute of Peace, there is still a chance that Iraq’s leaders can “call back in the dogs of war.”

The State Department’s coordinator for Iraq policy, Ambassador James Jeffrey, said the U.S. thought the Golden Mosque attack could “be traced back to the [Abu Musab] Zarqawi al Qaeda movement,” Reuters news agency reported.

Miss Coyne, who has just returned from three years in Iraq, said al Qaeda would fit because it was “trying to prove the experiment is a failure, keep U.S. troops tied up there and make it a battleground for [their] own apocalypse.”

The destruction of the Golden Mosque, said Bill Vendley of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, risked aggravating differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites as far away as South Asia.

“Old hurts can be enflamed. The Sunni-Shi’ite fault line is one that re-emerges today in places as far off as Pakistan … and the people doing this are playing on that,” said Mr. Vendley, who is based in New York but often meets with Iraqi religious leaders.

Both Baghdad residents, who do not know each other, said the killings and chaos in the streets of the capital on Wednesday were led by the armed militia of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Fighters dressed in black poured out of their base in Sadr City into downtown Baghdad.

The woman, speaking on the phone from her Baghdad home late in the evening, said that only the U.S. military would be able to return some level of calm to the streets.

“I think if there is an order from the soldiers or whoever is responsible on the American side, I think they can stop such things; I think they can. But there are a lot of people killing and dying now,” she said.

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