- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Dozens of Iraqi Shi’ite and Sunni clerics meeting in the Muslim holy city of Mecca yesterday called for an end to sectarian violence that many fear could lead to civil war in Iraq.

Sponsored by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the meeting approved a declaration prohibiting the killing of Muslims in Iraq and called for safeguarding the unity of the country.

It also urged the release of Muslim and non-Muslim hostages.

It was not clear what impact the document signed by the dozens of clerics would have on militias that appear to be outside the control of both Shi’ite and Sunni religious authorities, and others that are affiliated with al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, it marked an unprecedented effort by Iraqi religious leaders — who gathered in the Saudi Arabian city where Islam was born — to speak out against the bloodshed that has increased daily throughout the holy month of Ramadan.

Yesterday was no exception as black-uniformed, hooded gunmen loyal to anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr briefly seized the major southern city of Amarah.

Twenty-five gunmen and police died in gunbattles between rival Shi’ite factions before the Iraqi army moved in to retake the city of 750,000 people.

The city is famous for its marshlands along the Tigris river 30 miles from the border with Iran, where the Shi’ite theocracy is said to be funding, arming and training both Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the rival Badr Brigades.

The Amarah showdown highlighted the potential for an all-out conflict between them and their political sponsors, both with large blocs in parliament and important to the survival of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s shaky four-month-old government.

It also underlined the deep underlying rift that exists between Sheik al-Sadr and the more traditional but powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

SCIRI and its Badr Brigades are headed by key power broker Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who spent decades in Iranian exile during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

The clashes marred the Muslim day of prayer for the second Friday in a row in cities where American and British forces had only recently ceded military control to Iraqi security forces and the army.

More than 100 persons were slain in Balad, a small city north of Baghdad, this past week, most of them by Shi’ite death squads drawn largely from Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia.

The Mahdi fighters held Amarah for several hours in an embarrassingly strong showing against the local police and security forces, controlled by the Badr Brigade.

Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, police reported the deaths of 34 persons, including 10 killed in mortar attacks overnight in Balad.

Gunmen burst into a Shi’ite home in Aziziyah, 35 miles southeast of Baghdad, killing a Shi’ite family of nine.

A U.S. soldier was killed when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb southwest of the capital.

Amarah is a major population center in the resource-rich yet impoverished south and a traditional center of Shi’ite defiance to successive Iraqi regimes.

Its marshlands were drained by Saddam during the 1990s in reprisal for the city’s role in the Shi’ite uprising after the Persian Gulf War.

At the height of the fighting yesterday, Associated Press Television News video showed thick, black smoke billowing from behind barricades at a police station, much of it from vehicles set on fire inside the compound.

Hooded gunmen roamed the streets with automatic assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Most of the streets were deserted except for the gunmen.

The militiamen later withdrew from their positions and lifted their siege with a truce brokered by an al-Sadr envoy as government forces entered the city.

At the meeting in Mecca, clerics drafted a document they said was inspired by historic Islamic texts prohibiting infighting among Muslims.

“This document takes effect from this moment. … We hope [religious] authorities and clerics spread the message of the document in mosques … and that local media make sure it reaches all Iraqis,” said Saudi-based OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.

He said the document draws its strength from the symbolism of the signing venue.

Neither Sheik al-Sadr nor Iraq’s top Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani sent representatives to the meeting.

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