- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite politicians yesterday halted talks on a new government and threatened to break off cooperation with the United States on security and reconstruction after a military assault that killed at least 16 persons in what Iraqis claim was a mosque.

The victims were identified as followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a principal backer of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and a key player in long-running talks aimed at forming a government.

U.S. and Iraqi officials offered wildly conflicting accounts of the Sunday night gunbattle, but the recriminations clearly were undermining fragile trust between the Americans and Iraqis. President Jalal Talabani said he and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad had agreed to form an Iraqi-U.S. committee to investigate.

Sectarian tensions were inflamed further by a suicide bombing that killed at least 40 persons north of Baghdad yesterday, bringing the death toll to at least 150 over two days. About 20 bodies were discovered, most with nooses around their necks, a day after 40 bodies were found, most of which were beheaded.

Iraq’s security minister, in the most inflammatory account of Sunday’s battle, accused U.S. and Iraqi forces of entering a mosque and killing 37 unarmed civilians after tying them up. Residents and police — who put the death toll at about 20 — spoke of a fierce battle between the soldiers and gunmen from Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, whose followers ran the mosque.

The U.S. military said the raid targeted a building used by “insurgents responsible for kidnapping and execution activities” and that “no mosques were entered or damaged during this operation.”

The military said the building had been under observation for some time and that gunmen opened fire when Iraqi special-operations troops closed in, with U.S. forces in a backup role. The military said the troops killed 16 insurgents and wounded three “during a house-to-house search,” detained 18, found a significant weapons cache and secured the release of an Iraqi hostage.

“In our observation of the place and the activities that were going on, it’s difficult for us to consider this a place of prayer,” said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman. “It was not identified by us as a mosque, though we certainly recognized it as a community gathering center. I think this is, frankly, a matter of perception.”

Associated Press reporters who visited the scene yesterday said the site clearly was a neighborhood Shi’ite mosque complex. Television footage showed a compound used as a gathering place for prayer, filled with religious posters and strung with banners denouncing the attack.

Some confusion may result from the fact that the site was not a traditional religious building but a compound of former Ba’ath Party offices converted into a mosque by Sheik al-Sadr’s followers.

Police and representatives of Sheik al-Sadr said all those killed were in the complex for evening prayers and none was a gunman. Police put the death toll at 17 — seven members of Sheik al-Sadr’s militia, seven civilians and three Shi’ite political activists.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr angrily rejected the U.S. account and demanded a “clear explanation.”

“Entering the Mustafa Shi’ite mosque and killing worshippers was unjustified and a horrible violation, from my point of view,” Mr. Jabr said on the Al Arabiya TV network. “Innocent people inside the mosque offering prayer at sunset were killed.”

The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the largest Shi’ite bloc in parliament, canceled yesterday’s session of negotiations to form a new government because of the raid, said lawmaker Jawad al-Maliki. He said the alliance likely would decide today when to resume the talks.

Mr. al-Maliki, an ally of Mr. al-Jaafari, also said the UIA “calls for a rapid restoration of [control of] security matters to the Iraqi government” and away from the Americans.

The Baghdad governor said he had cut ties with U.S. forces and diplomats, while all 37 members of the Baghdad provincial council suspended cooperation with the United States in reconstruction projects planned for the remainder of the year.

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