Archive for Saturday, March 4, 2006

Shiite militia helps patrol at Baghdad prayer service

March 4, 2006

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— A driving ban Friday brought the Iraqi capital a day of relative calm, a rare period of peaceful streets enforced, in part, by a Shiite Muslim militia - one of several armed groups the U.S. military wants abolished.

Thousands of Shiites - frisked by Mahdi Army militiamen in yellow button-down collar shirts and armed with Kalashnikov rifles and metal detector wands - knelt in prayer at a huge outdoor service in Baghdad's Sadr City slum.

The militia that kept order Friday was the same force that went on a rampage of reprisal attacks against Sunni Muslim mosques and clerics after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Thursday night, after a deadly bomb attack in the poor Shiite neighborhood, police and aides to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced the radical leader's militia, the Mahdi Army, would help government security forces patrol Sadr City.

The government decision to legitimize joint patrols with the Mahdi Army - which had been going on anyway - appeared to have tacit U.S. military approval, even though American forces have fought several protracted battles with the Shiite fighters for control of southern holy cities and the Sadr City Shiite stronghold.

Acceptance of the higher profile for the Mahdi Army, if only for a time, signaled the importance U.S. authorities have put on quelling more than a week of deadly sectarian violence after the Samarra bombing.

The Americans took pains to stay out of the conflict, but there was criticism nevertheless.

Shiite Muslims assemble for Friday prayers, in the Shiite district of Sadr city, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 3, 2006. Militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr helped police check cars and patrol the area in a bid to avert attacks during midday prayers Friday when large numbers of Muslims congregate for the most important service of the week.

Shiite Muslims assemble for Friday prayers, in the Shiite district of Sadr city, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 3, 2006. Militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr helped police check cars and patrol the area in a bid to avert attacks during midday prayers Friday when large numbers of Muslims congregate for the most important service of the week.

Abdul-Salam Al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars, suggested U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad might share blame for the violence along with some Shiite religious leaders.

Two days before the gleaming dome atop the 1,400-year-old Askariya shrine was bombed, Khalilzad had warned that the United States would not continue to support institutions run by sectarian groups with links to armed militias.

Sunnis accuse Shiite militiamen operating in the ranks of the Interior Ministry, which controls the police, of widespread abuses.

The Friday lull in violence followed a night of carnage in two southeastern Baghdad suburbs, where some 50 gunmen stormed an electricity substation and a brick factory nearby where they slaughtered Shiite factory workers in their sleep, police said. The attacks raised Thursday's death toll to 58.

In much of the country Friday, worshippers walked in peace to mosques to offer prayers and listen to sermons, in which some imams - both Shiite and Sunni - called for unity and an end to violence.

"There is no difference between Sunni and Shiite," Sheik Hadi al-Shawki told Shiite worshippers in Amarah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad. "We have to unite and not let the terrorists divide us."

But anger at the Americans and the Iraqi government found its way to pulpits on both sides of the Shiite-Sunni divide.

In Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, thousands of Sunnis gathered in the Grand Mosque, spilling into the streets and courtyard around the nearby Askariya shrine. Cleric Ahmed Hassan al-Taha accused U.S. forces and their allies of stoking the tension between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis.

"Iraqis were living in harmony until the occupiers and those who came with them arrived in this country. They are responsible for igniting sectarianism," al-Taha said.

A militiaman loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stands guard in the Shiite district of Sadr city, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 3, 2006. Shiite militiamen helped police check cars and patrol the area in a bid to avert attacks during midday prayers Friday when large numbers of Muslims congregate for the most important service of the week.

A militiaman loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stands guard in the Shiite district of Sadr city, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 3, 2006. Shiite militiamen helped police check cars and patrol the area in a bid to avert attacks during midday prayers Friday when large numbers of Muslims congregate for the most important service of the week.

Hundreds took to the streets after services in the southern Shiite stronghold of Basra and marched to the Iraqi South Oil Co., threatening to disrupt exports unless the government provides better protection and greater support to local authorities and private militias.

Security forces sealed off Baghdad, preventing most vehicles from entering or leaving the city of 7 million.

U.S. Deaths

As of Friday, at least 2,299 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The latest identifications reported by the military:

¢ Marine Lance Cpl. John J. Thornton, 22, Phoenix, Ariz.; killed Feb. 25 in Ramadi from a mortar attack; assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Twentynine Palms, Calif.

¢ Army Pfc. Tina M. Priest, 20, Austin, Texas; died Wednesday of noncombat-related injuries in Taji; assigned to the 4th Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.

¢ Army Sgt. Joshua V. Youmans, 26, Flushing, Mich.; died Wednesday in San Antonio, Texas, of injuries sustained Nov. 21 in Habbaniyah by a roadside explosive; assigned to the Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment, Saginaw, Mich.

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