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Gunmen Attack Baghdad Mosque

Three people are hurt in the shooting at a Sunni Muslim site, a week after a deadly blast at a Shiite shrine. Some fear a sectarian war in Iraq.

September 06, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Three gunmen hopped out of a pickup truck and opened fire on a Sunni Muslim mosque here Friday, injuring three people. In a nation unnerved by bombings and the assassination of a Shiite Muslim cleric, the attack raised fears of violence between the two religious sects.

The attack at the Qiba Mosque just after dawn prayers threatened to further escalate tensions between Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis a week after a car bombing in Najaf killed more than 100 people, including Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim.

Many Shiites blame the bombing on an amalgam of possible assassins, including an extremist Sunni sect and Saddam Hussein loyalists from the Baath Party. U.S.-led forces have appealed to Muslim clerics across the country to help calm a dangerous atmosphere that could lead to revenge killings and religious civil war. The two attacks were especially troubling because they occurred at holy sites.

"For a long time we have enjoyed harmony between the Shiites and the Sunnis," said Samir Haqmat, standing outside the Qiba Mosque in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad hours after the shooting. "We have prayed with them, and they have prayed with us. But there are elements backed by terrorist groups who want to create anarchy and divide us. It is not in our interests to kill one another."

In Najaf, thousands of Shiites converged Friday on the Imam Ali Mosque, the site of last week's bombing, to vow vengeance and grieve anew for their leader. "Death to the Baathists, death to America!" they chanted under the heavy security of armed militiamen.

In the adjacent town of Kufa, popular radical cleric Muqtader Sadr led his Shiite followers in chants against the United States and Israel, which they blamed for the wave of terrorist bombings in Iraq over the last month. Sadr called on his followers to arm themselves and demanded that U.S. troops leave all of Iraq's holy sites.

Despite the inflamed emotions and many guns, no violence was reported in Najaf or Kufa.

In Baghdad, the mosque shooting was the lone act of bloodshed.

The gunmen struck quickly, jumping out of the pickup truck and spraying automatic weapons fire at the mosque. About 40 rounds were fired, witnesses said, and three people standing outside were injured. Before afternoon prayers, armed men from the area's Sunni neighborhood arrived to guard the mosque, whose compound walls were pocked by bullets.

"The attackers looked like ordinary people, not fanatics," said Ahmed Khalil, a member of the mosque's prayer group.

"Mercenaries did this," Zaid Haider said of the shooting, as he pointed to a banner on the mosque proclaiming that Sunnis condemned the slaying of Hakim. "These extremists are not true Muslims. They are people paid by outside groups."

Rumors of attacks on other mosques spread quickly through the Iraqi capital. The stories threatened to undermine the recent stability between Shiites and Sunnis, whose relations under Hussein were tense because his Sunni-dominated Baath Party repressed the majority Shiite population.

One rumor circulating Friday suggested that there was a shooting death at the city's Al-Furdous Mosque. When two journalists arrived, Sheik Bassam Hussein and several of his followers looked perplexed.

"Nothing has happened here," the sheik said. "But it is the task of the clerics to speak against such violence."

Since the bombing in Najaf, armed guards have taken up positions at mosques around the city. At the Bratha Mosque, one of the holiest Shiite shrines in Baghdad, volunteer guards trained by U.S. forces directed traffic and stood on rooftops. Bodyguards shadowed clerics and imams.

"There are people who have infiltrated Iraq for acts of sabotage," said Mohammed Abdulhassan, standing with a Kalashnikov at his side. "Things are not stable. Our borders are open. People are sneaking in. Attackers want to do harm to Muslims, especially the Shiites."

In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited American troops Friday and met with local officials.

"I think we have the formula here for success," Rumsfeld said. "A lot of things have been accomplished. It's not going to be a straight, steady path. In the future there will be difficulties."

Times special correspondent Sameer Mohammed in Kufa and Associated Press contributed to this report.

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.

--- END NOTE ---

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