SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – Militants killed 65 members of Iraq’s Sunni minority in two attacks on Friday, one of them on a mosque, further inflaming sectarian tensions and imperiling an already fragile effort to form a unity government.
The attacks, which Sunni officials blamed on Shiite militia members, came as the governments in Baghdad and Washington are trying to forge a broad alliance against the militant forces of the Islamic State, the Sunni-led insurgency that has seized huge swaths of the country since June.
Within hours of the separate attacks in the province of Diyala north of Baghdad, Iraq’s Sunni political parties pulled out of coalition talks to register their anger over what they characterized as state-backed retribution against the country’s main religious minority.
Leaders of three of the largest Sunni electoral blocs announced they would suspend negotiations to form a new cabinet until the perpetrators of the attacks, which also injured 17 people, had been identified and brought to justice.
The Sunni leaders’ threats undermine tenuous political gains that only a few days ago had seemed to put Iraq on a path toward a unity government capable of bridging the country’s ethnic and sectarian divides and resolving the worst security crisis in a generation.
The U.S. State Department condemned the attack and called on Iraqi leaders to complete the process of forming an inclusive government according to the constitutional timeline.
Iraq had appeared to be emerging from the worst of its sectarian trials when its newly appointed president nominated Haider al-Abadi as prime minister last week and charged him with forming a new government.
An Iraqi soldier who says he volunteered to fight Sunni militants. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
After Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced later that week that he would step down after two terms, Sunni leaders offered their tentative support for a new government to unite Iraq’s fractious polity.
Mr. Abadi condemned the attacks on Friday night after military leaders announced an immediate investigation to identify the perpetrators.
But as the first act of direct retribution against Sunni civilians since the Islamic State rose up in early June, Friday’s attacks appear to have reversed even that modest political progress.
“I strongly condemn the targeting and killing of innocent civilians and worshipers in Diyala,” said Mr. Abadi, the prime minister-designate. “I call on the security agencies to pursue the killers and subject them to the most severe penalties and expedite the announcement of the investigation’s results.”
The support of Iraq’s Sunni minority is seen as essential to reversing the gains of the Islamic State, the Sunni insurgency that has shattered Iraq’s army. Iraqi politicians and policy makers in Washington believe that Sunni politicians in Baghdad could use their clout with Sunni leaders outside the capital to end their support for the insurgency—a tactic U.S. forces used to suppress the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, during a sectarian civil war in 2005 and 2006.
A failure to form a unity government could also threaten the U.S. military intervention to fight off the Islamist insurgency. President Barack Obama pledged to expand airstrikes against Islamic State targets last week only if the Iraqi government could unite against the militants.
Though the exact identities of the perpetrators in the twin attacks were unclear at midnight on Friday, the incidents appeared to illustrate the pitfalls of the Iraqi government’s use of irregular Shiite militias to fight the Islamist insurgency.
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Since militants belonging to the Islamic State took over the northern city of Mosul and surged southward to within striking distance of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, in mid-June, Mr. Maliki has relied on Shiite militias to fill the gaps in his badly routed military.
In public statements following the attacks, Sunni leaders said they considered the murders to be of a piece with what it called the Shiite-dominated government’s discriminatory anti-Sunni policies. That complaint amplified the same Sunni resentment that has long provided a platform for Sunni militants keen on exploiting sectarian tensions.
“This is a political message meant to keep Iraq rolling in the same cycle of revenge and blood,” said Salah Al Jabouri, a Sunni member of parliament representing the Coalition of the Union of National Powers, a Sunni political umbrella group, in a news conference on Friday evening. Mr. Jabouri referred to the perpetrators of Friday’s attacks as the mirror image of the terror group that has taken over much of Iraq.
“This new Islamic State are the criminals who are killing and strengthening themselves with state authority and who operate under its cover and use the excuse of jihad,” he said. “What jihad is it that kills worshipers in the mosques, kidnaps innocents and loots possessions?”
The security committee of Diyala Province, however, blamed the attacks on the Islamic State, which it accused of using violence to foment sectarian divisions in the region.
Friday’s attacks began when unknown militants detonated a series of improvised explosive devices near several checkpoints manned by Sunni tribal fighters and security forces near Hamrin in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, according to Ismail Al-Jobouri, a former member of the Diyala provincial council still involved with security in the province. The IED attacks killed seven people.
During the ensuing confusion, two men entered the nearby Musa’b bin Oumair mosque and opened fire on worshipers just before Friday prayers, according to Abdel Samad Al Zargoshi, a tribal leader from the area.
The province of Diyala is divided between Iraq’s Sunni minority and the Shiite sect that dominates Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. The area has long played host to incendiary sectarian tensions, and security conditions in the region offer a bellwether of wider strains throughout the country.
Sunni leaders have blamed Shiite militia groups for attacks on Sunnis in the past. In one notable incident in March, fighters from a Shiite militia known as Asaib Ahl Al Haq, backed by security forces, killed at least 23 people in Diyala province.
Unlike Friday’s terrorist attacks, that incident was part of a raid meant to suppress Sunni militants in the area.
Since the Islamic State’s abrupt surge in June, residents in Sunni communities of Baghdad and other cities have complained of harassment, arrests and sometimes killings at the hands of Shiite militias.
It was unclear which, if any, of the Shiite militias were responsible for Friday’s attacks.
Some, such as Asaib Ahl Al Haq and the Badr Corps, are trained and financed by Iraq’s Shiite-majority neighbor Iran.