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Iraq's prime minister says hardline Sunni clerics share blame for tensions

Iraq's prime minister says hardline Sunni clerics share blame for tensions

Iraq's Shiite prime minister said Friday hard-line Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia share the blame for this week's bloodshed at a Shiite religious festival in Karbala because they issued religious decrees terming Shiites heretics.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not spell out how comments by Sunni clerics could have provoked fierce battles last Tuesday among rival Shiite militias, which claimed up to 51 lives.
But his remarks appeared to suggest that security guards around the city's Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas mosques may have overreacted, fearing an all-out attack on the shrines by Sunni extremists when crowds of pilgrims approached chanting anti-government slogans.
Al-Maliki's comments also appeared aimed in part at deflecting criticism of the armed Shiite militias that security officials said were responsible for the bloodshed in Karbala.
The prime minister was asked by reporters to elaborate on his allegation that "foreign elements" played a role in the Karbala violence.
"We don't need any proof or evidence because these establishments ... issued fatwas (religious edicts) calling for the destruction of the shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas," al-Maliki told reporters.
He did not mention Saudi Arabia or its government by name but said he was accusing "organizations, gangs of fanatics and ignorant clerics who have said in the past that Shiites are infidels, meaning they permit killing them."
Last December, Abdul-Rahman al-Barak, a Saudi cleric from the austere Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, declared Shiites to be nonbelievers that are worse than Jews and Christians.
That same month, about 30 prominent Saudi clerics called on Sunnis throughout the Middle East to support their fellow Sunnis in Iraq against Shiites and praised the anti-American insurgency.
Those comments enraged Iraq's Shiite political leadership and raised tensions between the two neighboring countries, undermining U.S. efforts to convince Arab governments to play a more active role in stabilizing this country.
The Saudis fear a Shiite-dominated Iraq will fall under Iranian domination. Iraqi officials complain that the kingdom has not done enough to stop the flow of Saudi militants who have joined the Sunni insurgency.
Iraqi security officials said the clashes in Karbala escalated when members of the Mahdi Army militia confronted guards at the two mosques. The guards included members of a rival armed Shiite group affiliated with the country's biggest Shiite party.
Iraqi authorities mounted a massive security operation to protect the Karbala pilgrims from Sunni extremists, who have mounted deadly attacks against Shiites at religious ceremonies.
"The administrators of the two holy shrines received intelligence information few days before the pilgrimage that there was an organized plot to foment clashes between armed gunmen and the police forces," Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai told the congregation at the Imam Hussein mosque during Friday prayers.
He said the plot was designed to "create chaos around the two shrines" and seize control of them. He did not say who was behind the alleged plot.
In the wake of the carnage, Muqtada al-Sadr, the country's most powerful militia leader, suspended activities of his Mahdi Army for up to six months, purportedly to purge the ranks of unruly splinter factions that threaten to discredit his movement among Iraqi Shiites.
Al-Maliki's government said in a statement Thursday that al-Sadr's decision offered a "good chance" to "suspend the work of other militias" to restore "the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq."
Al-Sadr's order appeared to have had a calming effect in Baghdad, although a little-known faction in southern Iraq _ the Free Men's Brigade _ said it would not abide by the decree.
Al-Sadr loyalists in Baghdad suspect the Free Men's Brigade includes mostly Shiites who were supporters of Saddam Hussein.
American commanders believe Iranian-backed splinter groups from al-Sadr's organization have been responsible for most of the recent attacks in the Baghdad area that have caused American casualties.
The U.S. command said American troops arrested 24 suspected extremists Thursday during raids in the New Baghdad area, a Mahdi Army stronghold.
Also Friday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of two more U.S. service members _ a Marine and an Army soldier. They were killed Wednesday during fighting in Anbar province, the Sunni Arab stronghold west of Baghdad, the military said.
That brought the total U.S. troop deaths in Iraq to at least 79 this month, one more than in July, which was the lowest monthly figure this year.
In Anbar, U.S. and Iraqi forces raided houses Friday in the Euphrates River town of Haqlaniyah, 220 kilometers (140 miles) northwest of Baghdad, and closed bridges linking the town with Haditha, according to residents reached by telephone.
Alhurra television reported that four al-Qaida fighters and two Sunni tribesmen opposed to the terror movement were killed in gunfights in Haqlaniyah.
Elsewhere in Anbar, the U.S. military said Marines from the 5th Regimental Combat Team killed 12 suspected al-Qaida in Iraq fighters and destroyed two vehicles in fighting Wednesday near Fallujah.
Marine AV-8B Harrier jets dropped two precision-guided bombs, and Marines also called in artillery strikes against the insurgents during the battle, the military said.
"Numerous weapons and roadside bomb making materials were also found," the U.S. statement said.
U.S. officials have reported a dramatic drop in violence in Anbar after numerous Sunni Arab community leaders broke with al-Qaida in Iraq last year. Some members of other insurgent groups have joined forces with the U.S. to hunt down al-Qaida members.
The apparent turnaround in Anbar is expected to figure prominently in September reports to Congress, where prominent Democrats and Republicans have called for a drawdown in U.S. forces.


Updated : 2021-07-26 13:55 GMT+08:00