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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: AN ANNIVERSARY

Distrust, fear a year after mosque bombing

The attack in Samarra made life `worse than ever,' one Iraqi says.

February 23, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — On a gray, drizzly day in the mostly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Karada, one of this capital's last bastions of relative stability, sheepherder Ahmed Jassim Safee reflected on how life has changed in the year since sectarian warfare erupted with the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

"We used to go to sell our livestock in Fallouja, Ramadi and Rutbah," Safee said of Iraqi cities that are now Sunni hotspots practically off-limits to Shiites. "The shrine bombing has resulted in the drawing of borders, and now we cannot travel freely even within the limits of one city or town because you don't know when you're going to be targeted or for what reason."

The Golden Mosque held the tombs of imams who were descendants of the Muslim prophet Muhammad and regarded by the Shiite sect as his rightful successors. U.S. and Iraqi officials have committed to rebuilding the mosque's bomb-damaged golden dome, but it is in a Sunni-dominated area and the work is viewed as too dangerous to undertake at the moment.

Before the mosque bombing, anger and violence in Iraq had largely been focused on the U.S.-led forces occupying the country in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

But the Feb. 22, 2006, attack on one of the nation's holiest Shiite mosques overshadowed Western failures and transgressions, including the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and reconstruction lapses, that occurred after the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It set off a convulsion of sectarian warfare that continues mostly unabated to this day and starkly divides Iraq in ways that were largely buried before.

Now, one year on, amid the latest version of a security plan intended to restore calm, bombed-out buildings scar Baghdad and Iraqis live in fear of one another. Several people asked to discuss their feelings on the shrine bombing and their hopes for the future declined to do so. Those who were willing to talk said they badly wanted the plan to work and for peace to return. But their faith in such an outcome varies widely.

As his 14-year-old son, Abbas, slaughtered a sheep for a customer and dozens of other animals milled around, Safee, 37, said he was pessimistic. He noted that hundreds of people have been killed even after the new security effort was launched early this month and that on Wednesday the government announced it had captured Sudanese militants entering the country.

"What kind of security plan is this?" Safee said. "Life after the shrine incident in Samarra has become unbearable and worse than ever. It has become very dangerous to the extent that even a .50-caliber machine gun wouldn't do you good for protection."

The distrust is not limited to Shiites. Sunnis too believe sectarian tensions have long-lasting ramifications, and fear for the future.

"I don't think that the shockwaves of this incident have died down yet, and I don't think that they will unless a more secular government comes into power," said Zaid Jumaili, a 33-year-old electrical engineer from a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in west Baghdad.

"These explosions basically got rid of any inhibitions that the people had before it. It's all about revenge. Ordinary Shiites started attacking or killing ordinary Sunnis, and ordinary Sunnis who had nothing to do with [religious militants] started doing the same thing as a reprisal."

Still, many Shiites and Sunnis share the view that the attack was the work of foreign agents determined to foment a holy war in Iraq, and resent the way it has divided their country. Saif Lahaybi, a 23-year-old Sunni engineering student, said he had to end a relationship with a Shiite girl because of the divisions, and he and Shiite friends are no longer able to visit each other's neighborhoods to socialize.

"No doubt the bombing of the shrine in Samarra is not accepted, whether by Shiite or Sunnis," he said. "We were like one, living together and sharing neighborhoods."

But there are those who hold out hope.

Mohammed Thamir, 28, who on Thursday sat in his darkened luggage store without electricity, said he believed the new security effort would bring an end to the violence.

"It was a big tragedy and what happened is unfathomable, but I am optimistic that we will be able to surpass these hard times," he said as the light from a battery-powered fluorescent bulb glinted off the metal fixtures of his suitcases. Business was brisk after the bombing, as Iraqis bought baggage to flee the country. Now, he said, sales have slowed as people give the new plan a chance to work.

"'Hopefully this security plan will put an end to this violence," Thamir said. "I have faith that it will work. It's not just Iraqis; the whole international community has interest in the success of this plan."

Shujaa Abdul-Ilah, the 25-year-old owner of a store that sells leather shoes and coats, said the violence had forced him to close his shop five hours earlier each day, but that the crackdown had made him feel safer.

He said that despite the violence and sectarian tension, "I don't think that it will stay like that. We are all brothers regardless of our religion or sect. We have lived in Iraq for numerous generations."

christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

Times staff writers Said Rifai and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.

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