Friday, June 29, 2007

Why Can't Mookie Behave Like All Those Sunni Sheikhs?

It looks like next week will be interesting.

A call by radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for thousands of Iraqis to march to a twice-bombed shrine in the predominantly Sunni Muslim city of Samarra next week has set off alarms among U.S. and Iraqi officials, who fear the demonstration will worsen sectarian tensions and incite bloodshed.

Al-Sadr said the pilgrimage to the Askariya shrine, whose bombing in February 2006 has been blamed for accelerating sectarian violence, is intended as a display of unity between Sunnis and Shiites. He said the march next Thursday, which marks the July 1 birthday of Fatima, Islam's Prophet Muhammad's daughter, won't become a bloodbath.

Yet many fear that the event, which could see thousands traveling through some of Iraq's most dangerous areas, will turn bloody. A Shiite pilgrimage in March to Karbala, south of Baghdad, produced scores of deaths, including 90 from two suicide-bomb attacks in the town of Hillah.

"I really don't know what is the benefit of the visit to Samarra, and I don't know why Muqtada insists on sending the innocent to their deaths," said Baghdad resident Hussein al-Maliki, 34, a Shiite. "I'm sure the insurgents will do their best to kill as many Shiites as possible during the visit."

For al-Sadr, the leader of the anti-American Mahdi Army militia, the march poses a test of his popularity. A peaceful demonstration could arm him with broad political clout, which has eluded other Iraqi leaders so far, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. A low turnout could underscore the limits of al-Sadr's ability to marshal ordinary citizens.

In any case, the event promises a volatile mix of weapons and ill will, with members of al-Sadr's militia gearing up to provide security alongside Iraqi and U.S. forces that are still fighting his militiamen in the south.

Al-Sadr confirmed Thursday that he'll go ahead with the march despite calls to cancel it from both Sunnis and Shiites and reservations within his organization.

For Iraqis, the shrine at Samarra has a special place in the violence. In February 2006, presumed Sunni bombers destroyed its dome, accelerating the tit-for-tat pattern of sectarian violence. Hundreds died in the following days, as Shiites retaliated with killings that reached unprecedented levels by October before beginning to decline.

Two weeks ago, explosions toppled the shrine's remaining minarets. Several Sunni mosques were destroyed in the aftermath, though the retaliatory violence was far less than last year's.

No group has claimed responsibility for either bombing, and while U.S. officials have blamed them on the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq, there's no hard evidence.

Since his return to public view after a three-month absence, al-Sadr, whose stronghold is the Baghdad slum of Sadr City and whose militia has been blamed for much of the sectarian violence, has tried to portray himself as a unifying rather than divisive figure.

Al-Maliki's government called on al-Sadr to delay the pilgrimage until more security forces are in place in Samarra and along the route from Baghdad.

Should the march occur, pilgrims would travel from Baghdad and Shiite cities in southern Iraq through Sunni Arab insurgent strongholds north of the capital to Samarra.

Update: During Friday prayers at Mookie's mosque, the officiating cleric announced that the march has been called off.

Or possibly just postponed.


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