Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Attacks Fuel Religious Tensions

Many see a Ba’athist plot behind the recent murders of Sunni and Shia religious figures.
By Wisam Karim

Medical student Ahmed Mohammed was grabbed and bundled into a car as he left a teaching hospital in the Kadhemiya district of Baghdad on January 6.


Two days later, Mohammed’s body was dumped outside the hospital's gates, bound, gagged and shot twice through the head.


What made his murder especially alarming was the fact that he was a Sunni who led the prayers at a local mosque in this primarily Shia district, and provided religious guidance to fellow believers.


The next day, in the north-eastern Iraqi town of Baaqouba, a gas canister on a bicycle exploded outside a mosque, killing six Shia worshippers as they emerged from Friday prayers.


The two incidents are among dozens of recent attacks on both Sunni and Shia religious figures, which many Iraqis fear are part of a sustained campaign by former regime loyalists trying to stoke sectarian tensions.


Baghdad neighbourhoods which have both Shia and Sunni communities abound with stories of worshippers gunned down after dawn prayers, or bombs planted outside mosques.


And though many of the attacks may be explained away as local quarrels, the cumulative effect has been to create tensions in such mixed communities, undermining the authority of the United States-led coalition and strengthening the hand of its enemies.


In Mohammed's case, suspicion for the murder fell immediately on local elements of the Badr Corps, the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia political party that dominates the neighbourhood. “Who else has the weapons and the power to do such a thing?” asked one man wearing the dishdasha robe often favoured by pious Sunnis, who described himself as a friend of the dead man.


Sheikh Ahmed al-Samarrai, the preacher at the Um al-Qura mosque in Baghdad's predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Ghazalya, placed indirect blame on the coalition for Mohammed's death. "I place responsibility for what happened on the coalition, because it is responsible for Iraq today... I won't accuse a particular faction, because that's not the real issue. The main [culprit] is the force that allowed what happened to take place," he said.


Meanwhile, local Shia blamed the explosion that killed six at their mosque in Baaqouba on “remnants of the old regime”. They said the mixed Sunni-Shia neighbourhood had been the scene of numerous coalition raids, and they believed local Ba’athists were trying to avenge themselves on Shia who had informed on them.


In some cases, sectarian explanations for violence are closer to the truth.


Unknown assailants gunned down Shia preacher Ali al-Fuadi last December as he left dawn prayers in the al-Hussein mosque in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Ghazalya.


A follower of the radical preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, al-Fuadi had led a Shia move into the affluent and overwhelmingly Sunni district, home to many former military and security officers. Al-Fuadi himself came from the largely Shia neighborhood of Shu'ala, halfway across the city.


The al-Sadr supporters transformed the abandoned Ba’ath party headquarters into Ghazalya's first Shia mosque, rigging up two loudspeakers and a metal frame on the roof to serve as a makeshift minaret.


Although Sunni residents described al-Fuadi himself as an elderly, respected and essentially apolitical preacher, they resented what they considered an intrusion by the Shias.


They were particularly unhappy about having to listen to the mosque's call to prayer. The Shia version differs from the Sunni in that it declares that Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and the central figure in Shia Islam, to be God's "viceroy." Local retired military officer Abu Ahmed angrily described the Shia creed as "bid'a" – a term implying heresy.


Ghazalya residents described al-Fuadi's funeral as a further Shia show of force that frightened local schoolchildren, as al-Sadr’s followers waved banners and called for revenge on the “killers”.


Few locals mourned al-Fuadi’s death, which they blamed on infighting between Shia factions.


In some cases, Iraq’s tribal system can prevent the outbreak of violence.


Sheikh Al-Samarrai relates how a friend of his, Sheikh Mohammed al-Zubai, was seized by a southern Shia militia which accused him of being a "Wahhabi" - a member of a puritan Sunni trend originating in Saudi Arabia.


A militia officer, claiming that the sheikh had committed no act of aggression, ordered al-Zubai's release. But al-Zubai suspected his release resulted from his claim of belonging to a prominent tribe – one that would take revenge if anything happened to him.


Still, sectarianism and tribalism also can be an explosive combination.


One leaflet, circulated in the name of the "al-Mushahida and al-Jubur tribes" demanded that Shia political parties take responsibility for the assassination of Sunni preacher Ahmed Khodeir al-Mushhadani. The leaflet blamed the Da'wa party - one of Iraq's main Shia movements - for the killings, described it as "Masonic" and "Jewish", and threatened to attack its headquarters unless the assassins were handed over within 24 hours.


Sunni and Shia religious figures alike have condemned the recent killings of clerics. The Shia usually blame the attacks on Ba’athist provocateurs, while the Sunnis are generally more coy about who they hold responsible.


But both sides are adamant that the attacks will not set off widespread religious violence. "The Iraqi people are above this," said Shia scholar Hussein al-Shami.


Wisam Karim al-Jaf is a trainee journalist with IWPR in Baghdad.


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