Wednesday, March 3, 2004

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite clerics joined Sunni preachers in a march of thousands of mostly black-clad men yesterday, trying to keep sectarian passions in check after a horrific attack on Shi’ite pilgrims that raised fears of civil war.

U.S. and Iraqi officials disagreed over how many people died in the Tuesday bombings in Baghdad and Karbala — the deadliest since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Governing Council said 271 persons were killed, but U.S. officials put the toll at 117.

The attacks — at some of the holiest shrines of Shi’ite Islam and on the most sacred day in the Shi’ite calendar — threatened to turn Shi’ites against Sunnis if the bombers were found to have been Iraqi Sunni extremists.

But strife with the country’s Sunni minority would hardly be in the interests of the Shi’ites, who stand on the verge of achieving their dream of real political power after generations of suppression. Civil war would threaten those dreams, and the community’s influential clergy appeared eager to keep passions in check.

No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, said the United States has evidence that al Qaeda-linked Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi was behind the bombings.

U.S. officials said 15 persons were detained in Karbala in connection with the attacks, though none was charged. Among those detained were five Farsi speakers, a suggestion that they were Iranians.

About 100,000 Iranians are thought to have come to Iraq for the Ashura religious rituals, and Iran’s news agency said 23 Iranians were among the dead.

In what appeared to be a nod to criticism from Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer said the coalition would help strengthen border security, adding that it was “increasingly apparent” that “a large part of terrorism” comes from outside Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and other Shi’ite leaders accused the coalition of failing to provide adequate security for the worshippers and not doing enough to prevent extremists from crossing Iraq’s porous borders.

“There are 8,000 border police on duty today, and more are on the way,” Mr. Bremer said. “We are adding hundreds of vehicles and doubling border police staffing in selected areas. The United States has committed $60 million to support border security.”

In an attempt to play down sectarian divisions, Shi’ite Muslim clerics and Sunni preachers led thousands in a march from a Shi’ite suburb in eastern Baghdad to the Kazimiya district where the bombings in the capital occurred.

“We and our Sunni countrymen are, have been and always will be brothers,” said Shi’ite preacher Amer al-Hussein, a senior aide to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an outspoken opponent of the U.S.-led occupation.

Members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council also stressed the need for unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis.

“It was a crime directed not only against Shi’ites, or Islam, but against humanity,” said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a prominent Shi’ite council member. “Anyone who kills a Sunni is against the spirit of Shi’ism. And anyone who kills a Shi’ite is against the spirit of Sunnism,” he said.

Council members also sought to discourage speculation that the attacks would trigger a wave of reprisal killings that would spiral toward civil war.

“We are nowhere near civil war,” said Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shi’ite member. “It will never happen in this country.”

Shi’ites are thought to make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people, and the collapse of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime has offered them the opportunity to transform their numbers into domination of the government being worked out with the U.S.-led coalition.

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