Baghdad Iraq's Shiite prime minister said Friday hard-line Sunni clerics outside Iraq share the blame for this week's bloodshed at a Shiite religious festival in Karbala because they issued religious decrees terming Shiites heretics.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not spell out how comments by Sunni clerics - presumed to be mostly from Saudi Arabia - could have provoked fierce battles last Tuesday among rival Shiite militias, which claimed up to 51 lives. Iraq's majority Shiites widely believe that Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia have stoked sectarian tensions by preaching against Shiites.
But his remarks appeared to suggest that security guards around the city's Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas mosques may have overreacted, fearing an all-out attack on the shrines by Sunni extremists mingled into a crowd of pilgrims who approached chanting anti-government slogans.
Al-Maliki's attempt to cast blame on foreign Sunni preachers also appeared aimed at deflecting criticism away from the armed Shiite militias that security officials said were responsible for the bloodshed in Karbala, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.
The prime minister was asked by reporters to elaborate on his allegation that "foreign elements" played a role in the Karbala violence.
"We don't need any proof or evidence because these establishments ... issued fatwas (religious edicts) calling for the destruction of the shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas," al-Maliki told reporters.
He did not mention Saudi Arabia or its government by name but said he was accusing "organizations, gangs of fanatics and ignorant clerics who have said in the past that Shiites are infidels, meaning they permit killing them."
He was referring to comments made last December from the austere Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam which is dominant in Saudi Arabia. One cleric, Abdul-Rahman al-Barak, declared Shiites to be nonbelievers who are worse than Jews and Christians.
That same month, about 30 prominent Saudi clerics called on Sunnis throughout the Middle East to support their fellow Sunnis in Iraq against Shiites and praised the anti-American insurgency.
Those comments enraged Iraq's Shiite political leadership and raised tensions between the two neighboring countries, undermining U.S. efforts to convince Arab governments to play a more active role in stabilizing this country.
The Saudis fear a Shiite-dominated Iraq will fall under Iranian domination. Iraqi officials complain that the kingdom has not done enough to stop the flow of Saudi militants who have joined the Sunni insurgency.
Iraqi security officials said the clashes in Karbala escalated when members of the Mahdi Army militia confronted guards at the two mosques. The guards included members of a rival armed Shiite group affiliated with the country's biggest Shiite party.