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2006-02-24

Baghdad Imposes Daytime Curfew as Violence Escalates Following Shiite Mosque Bombing

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At least 140 people have been killed over the past two days in Iraq following the bombing of one of the country’s main Shiite shrines. We go to Baghdad for a report and speak with an Iraqi blogger and architect. [includes rush transcript]

In Iraq, at least 140 people have been killed nationwide over the past 48 hours, prompting officials and politicians to appeal for calm amid growing concerns of a slide into all-out civil war. The violence was sparked by the bombing of the Askariya mosque–one of the country’s main Shiite shrines–in Samarra on Wednesday. In response, the government has declared an unprecedented daytime curfew for Baghdad and three nearby provinces in an effort to prevent more bloodshed. Additionally, civilian flights from Baghdad airport have been cancelled.

Iraq’s largest Sunni religious organization said 184 mosques have been attacked, ten clerics killed, and another fifteen abducted over the past two days. In the worst single incident, 47 factory workers were killed and their bodies dumped in a ditch outside Baghdad. In Baquba, at least sixteen people were killed in a suicide bomb attack at a market and thirteen bullet-riddled bodies were found Thursday night in different areas of Baghdad. Seven U.S. soldiers were killed in two roadside bombings. The U.S. military has reportedly ordered soldiers in Baghdad to stay in their barracks and are "watching and waiting to see what the next 48 hours will bring," according to the New York Times.

In protest at the unrest, Sunni politicians have pulled out of emergency talks convened by President Jalaal Talabani. The Sunni alliance has also announced its withdrawal from negotiations to form a coalition government.

In a rare public rebuke, the main Sunni religious authority–the Association of Muslim Scholars–accused Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, of fomenting the violence. Sistani has urged Shias not to attack Sunni mosques, but a spokesman for the cleric said anger might be hard to contain.

Meanwhile, Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr added his voice to those calling for restraint. He charged that the Iraqi government and the US had failed to protect the Askariyah shrine and commanded his Mahdi Army militiamen to guard Shiite shrines throughout Iraq.

Several joint Sunni-Shiite demonstrations were held Friday morning in Basra, Kut and Mosul to condemn violence and call for national unity. And the staff of satellite TV channel Al Arabiya is in mourning today following the assassination of one of its best-known correspondents in Iraq. The 30-year-old Atwar Bahjat was killed along her cameraman and soundman. Their bodies were found Thursday near Samarra.

  • Tom Lasseter, Baghdad correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. He joins us on the line from Baghdad.
  • Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi blogger activist and architect who runs the popular blog "Raed in the Middle." He was in Iraq during and after the 2003 invasion and he took part in a number of humanitarian and political projects. He recently moved from Iraq to the Bay Area.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Iraq to speak with Tom Lasseter, Baghdad correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. Welcome to Democracy Now!

TOM LASSETER: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what you have seen happening?

TOM LASSETER: Over the past couple days, there has been certainly a lot of public demonstrations of the rage on both sides, both Sunni and Shia. You know, when word started to come out of the dome being destroyed in Samarra, there were almost immediately dozens of attacks on Sunni mosques, primarily in Baghdad. And then there were public demonstrations by Sunnis against those attacks. And people just are very concerned about how wide the violence will spread. Things were sort of eerily quiet today, because [inaudible] mainly in their neighborhoods, which really makes the audiences for the Friday prayers a lot smaller. And I think [inaudible] protest could spill into more massive violence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about the role of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army. On the one hand, he’s publicly called for an end to the violence. On the other hand, some Sunnis are claiming that the Mahdi Army is engaged in some of the attacks.

TOM LASSETER: Well, you know, Sadr, in his [inaudible] in April 2004 and then July and August of 2004. His stronghold is in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, about 2.5 million people, Baghdad’s largest city. And you a lot of times get very conflicting messages out of [inaudible] camp, whether they are going to pursue political means or violence. And part of that is a function of Sadr City being a place really in disarray. You know, you’ve got millions of people in these very cramped quarters, a lot of poverty, a lot of very angry people. And so, it’s not at all surprising that when they heard that the dome had been destroyed, that there was a fair amount of violence in Sadr City, guys with RPGs, AK-47s, and a lot of Sunni mosques around that area were attacked.

As that was happening, Sadr was out of the country. He was in Lebanon. And, you know, it’s hard to gauge chain of command there. You know, were there messages from Lebanon to Sadr City that quickly saying attack these mosques? You know, it’s [inaudible]. You know, again, it’s hard to gauge how much top-down command his organization has, because you’re dealing with an awful lot of militia members in very chaotic settings. And certainly, he has gone back and forth over the past year and a half about the sort of tactics that he’s going to pursue.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Lasseter, you were embedded with U.S. troops in or near Samarra?

TOM LASSETER: Yes. I was in downtown Samarra for about two weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your experience there and also about U.S. troops being told to stay in barracks now?

TOM LASSETER: Well, Samarra is a violent place. I was there the end of last month and the beginning of this month. It is a place that U.S. troops went into in October of 2004, as a precursor to the push into Fallujah that November. It was sort of a test case of them pacifying a town within the, you know, what’s often referred to as the Sunni Triangle.

And you sort of fast forward to now, more than a year later, there the U.S. had to build [inaudible] a dirt wall around the town. The town’s lost half its population. Many of the buildings are scarred by gunfire, bombings, RPGs. And soldiers are there still, certainly when I was there, faced near daily RPG attacks, grenade attacks, small arms fire, AK-47 attacks. Just very chaotic setting.

It’s also significant that the troops were there with the 101st Airborne. There are far fewer of them there in Samarra than there were when the Third Infantry Division was there last year. It’s gone from over 400 troops to about 120 troops. And so, that significantly reduced their ability to go out and patrol on a regular basis in areas around that, you know, like the area around the shrine.

And what’s taken up some of that slack is a group of Interior Ministry commandos from Baghdad who are predominantly Shia, and there is a considerable amount of friction between them and the Sunnis in Samarra. And that had to happen because the Iraqi army and police units in Samarra were believed to be so infiltrated, corrupt, just intimidated by insurgents, that they were taken off the checkpoints around the city. It was a widely held belief that they were allowing insurgents to come in. So Samarra is just a terrifically complicated place.

In terms of the U.S. in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country telling troops [inaudible], I do not know that from my reporting today. I can tell you that not many troops out on the streets, but, you know, their top [inaudible] Major General Lynch yesterday said that it would not affect the operational tempo, but, you know, we will just have to wait and see. I think there’s a good deal of wait-and-see going on. Lynch certainly said that they wanted to see what the Iraqi government and the Iraqi [inaudible] forces were capable of in this sort of situation, and I suppose we’ll all find out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder Newspapers, your sense of how this new violence now, this new wave of violence, is going to affect the continuing attempt of the Iraqi government to establish its legitimacy following the elections, the recent elections?

TOM LASSETER: I think it’s a little too soon to tell. Iraq has, at several points during the past couple years, seemed to be on the brink of chaos, of just disaster. For example, when Sadr’s guys were fighting in July and August 2004, I was here at the time, covered a lot of that fighting, and it felt very much like [inaudible]. You know, and it sort of — it pulled back from that violence. [inaudible] 2004, during the fighting in Fallujah, again, a very chaotic time, and the nation managed in its way to hold together.

But certainly, you know, it’s not so much the numbers dead, because the numbers that have been killed over the past couple days [inaudible], you know, in a single car bombing in Iraq before or a series of car bombings in Iraq before. It’s more the open anger and rage over the sectarian divide. And if that continues, certainly it will cripple any attempts to create a government that represents Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. If the religious and political leadership are able to reign that in and pull it back, it could actually have the opposite effect. It could signal to everyone how deeply important it is to have an inclusive government. And I think, again, we’re just going to have to watch over the next couple days at how widely spread the violence gets. I’m sorry. Go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Lasseter, I want to thank you for being with us, speaking to us from Baghdad. He is a correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and was embedded with U.S. troops in Samarra.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined in the studio in San Francisco now by Raed Jarrar, who is a well-known Iraqi blogger and architect. Thank you for joining us.

RAED JARRAR: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to hear your voice. Can you talk about the situation right now in Iraq?

RAED JARRAR: Yeah. The situation in Iraq, especially after this explosion, is very tense. And, I mean, I can understand the Western media concern with what’s happening in Iraq, but I can’t understand this celebration of what’s happening. Yesterday, I was searching for how many news stories were written about this explosion that contains the word "civil war" in the last 24 hours. And I found more than one thousand stories through Google that says that there’s a civil war that will start in Iraq.

So let me put things in context before I say what I think about the explosion, per se. One of the main differences between the Iraqi Sunnis and Shia, in general, is the way that they deal with sons and grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad. For Shia, they respect them so much, so they build big shrines for them and they go visit them, especially the twelve direct grandsons from the Prophet Muhammad. These twelve grandsons have big shrines with gold around them and so. And it happened that some of the time these shrines exist in Sunni cities, Sunni majority cities like the city of Samarra. And this, like here the irony of this explosion happens.

The shrine that is in Samarra that contains the three bodies of the last, you know, like the last three Imams was actually controlled by Sunnis and claimed by Sunnis. The people who run the shrine are Sunnis. And Samarra is a unique case in the Iraqi history, where there are Sunnis that claim that they are grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad, and they call themselves "Sayyid," the same word that the Shia call themselves. So the shrine is not threatened by Sunnis at all. And like all of the Sunnis, whether they were Sayyid or not, will be respecting it, because these are the places of the grandsons of the Prophet.

The irony is that the Imam Al-Askari himself said something before he died. He said, "my tomb" — or my shrine — "in Samarra will be a refuge for both Shia and Sunnis in the future." So this just reflects the level of integration between the two different ethnicities inside Samarra.

Unfortunately, what happened in Iraq after the invasion is that the U.S. administration and the media there was telling Iraqis for the last two or three years that they are not Iraqis, that they are Sunnis and Shia, like they are trying to invest in this segments inside the Iraqi community maybe to control the country or — I mean, it reminds me of the same way that the former Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, president, was controlling Lebanon of supporting different — or shifting support from different ethnic groups to make sure that no one is winning. So what’s happening in Iraq now is that after the invasion, the U.S. forces used to [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: We lost that feed with Raed Jarrar, Iraqi blogger and architect, speaking to us. His well-known popular blog is called "Raed in the Middle".

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