Iraqi clerics call for end to hostilities

Sunni and Shiite leaders say the U.S. is at the root of continuing violence and should withdraw its troops.

By Solomon Moore

November 26, 2006

BAGHDAD — Shiite and Sunni clerics, among the last vestige of authority in a country rapidly losing faith in politicians, charged Saturday that Iraq's plight was the result of U.S. mistakes and pleaded with their faithful to stem the bloodshed that followed a devastating attack on a mainly Shiite Baghdad neighborhood.

In interviews Saturday and in recent sermons, clerics articulated one message that appears to be gaining traction on both sides of Iraq's civil war: The U.S. presence is making matters worse, and the Americans should go home.

"The roots of our problems lie in the mistakes of the Americans committed right from the beginning of their occupation," said Sheik Ali Merza, a Shiite cleric in Najaf who is a leader of the Islamic Dawa Party.

Iraq's most prominent Sunni cleric expressed a similar viewpoint. At a Cairo news conference, Harith Dhari demanded that American troops withdraw.

"Since the beginning, the U.S. occupation drove Iraq from bad to worse," said Dhari, who became a fugitive this month after the Shiite-led government issued a warrant for his arrest on allegations that he has supported terrorism.

The increased focus by the clerics on the U.S. presence in Iraq comes as U.S. officials review a broad range of options to address the increasing violence and dwindling domestic support for the war. Options range from a short-term increase in the number of troops — which stands at 144,000 — to a phased withdrawal.

Vice President Dick Cheney made a quick visit Saturday to Saudi Arabia, a neighbor of Iraq and a regional power. Saudi Arabia also is a source of funds for Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq.

President Bush is scheduled to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in Jordan this week.

The clerics appealed for an end to retaliatory killings and kidnappings in the wake of a series of bombings Thursday in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad that killed more than 200 people.

"The explosions we are witnessing and this series of attacks and killings only aim at triggering a sectarian war, which neither Shiites nor Sunnis will win," Sheik Abdul Aziz Mohammed, a Shiite cleric in Kirkuk, said in his most recent sermon. "The prophet Muhammad said religious strife is dead, and condemned anyone who attempts to resurrect it."

Khalil Maliki, a Shiite cleric based in the southern port city of Basra, also blamed the United States.

"We have all concluded that the primary party responsible for all these massacres is the American occupation," said Maliki, a representative of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Most here expect Iraq's civil war to deepen as the government lifts curfew restrictions today, and it is unclear whether the clerics' appeals for calm are being heard.

Some prominent religious and political leaders accuse the U.S. military of conspiring with their enemies. Sunni Arabs say U.S. troops are raiding their communities in coordination with Shiite militias.

And Shiites say that U.S. forces are working with Sunni terrorist groups to conduct strikes such as the devastating car bomb barrage in Sadr City.

U.S. troops seeking a missing American serviceman believed to be held by Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia raided Sadr City only hours before Thursday's insurgent car bomb attack. Some Shiite clerics and politicians cited those raids as evidence of American involvement in the attack.

"Recently, it has become obvious that there is cooperation between the occupation forces, Al Qaeda and the Baathists," said Sahib Amry, a Sadr representative in Najaf.

Although U.S. military officials acknowledge that they have increased attacks in Shiite areas in Baghdad in pursuit of Army Spc. Ahmed Qusai Taei, they dismiss the conspiracy theories as ridiculous. But the fact that so many influential Iraqis find them credible complicates U.S. efforts to stop the bloodletting.

Sadr, whose representatives make up a key element in Maliki's Shiite coalition, threatened Friday to stage a walkout and bring down the government if Maliki went ahead with his meeting with Bush. U.S. and Iraqi officials said Saturday that there were no plans to cancel the meeting.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani canceled a trip to Tehran today, where he had planned to discuss an Iranian proposal for a three-way summit with Syria.

Reports emerged Saturday that Sunni Arab gunmen, using tactics usually attributed to Shiite militiamen, donned Iraqi army uniforms and kidnapped 21 men from a Shiite neighborhood in Balad Ruz, about 45 miles northeast of Baghdad. Police later found their corpses. Eleven of the dead were men from the same family.

In west Baghdad, where most of Friday's sectarian fighting took place, at least two dozen mortar shells pounded a single block in the Sunni Arab-dominated Ghazaliya neighborhood, where residents remained inside their concrete and brick houses. One person was killed.

After the mortar barrage, U.S. forces swept into the neighborhood and arrested at least 10 people, a resident said.

Projectiles also hit Sadr City and the neighborhood of Mustansiriya, crashing into a house and an open-air market; 14 people were injured.

The U.S. military announced that it had killed 22 suspected insurgents in the north Baghdad area in three separate incidents, which included an airstrike on a suspected bomb construction site.

A pregnant woman and a male teenager were injured in one fight, the military said.

"It is always a shame when terrorists hide among civilian women and children, putting them in harm's way," the military said in a statement.

Police in Baghdad found 17 bodies, all of them stripped of identification papers and riddled with bullet holes.

In Baqubah, gun battles between Iraqi police and suspected insurgents left at least 30 dead.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, Iraqi police said they had killed two insurgents who were attempting to plant a bomb, and that four police officers were injured by a roadside explosive.

The U.S. military announced that a Marine was killed by enemy fire in the western province of Al Anbar.

Many Iraqis said they expected violence to increase in the coming days.

"I don't think these attacks against Sadr City will be the last," said Diyadhin Fayadh, a Shiite cleric in Baghdad. "There will be more explosions."

"What happened in Sadr City is a very grave development, and I think the real reaction to it has not started yet," said Adnan Abo-Shabbot, 52, a Najaf supermarket owner. "I think that Baghdad will become an open battlefield. The worst is yet to come."

"The clerics and political leaders are insisting that people must be quiet and patient, because the consequences will be dire if the Muslim is killing his brother," said Ibrahim Hassan, 26, an engineering student in Sadr City. "But if someone loses two or three family members, he will never stay peaceful. Nobody can stop him. Not the clerics nor the politicians."


solomon.moore@latimes.com