Shia attacks on Sunni mosques in Iraq rekindle fears of sectarian strife
BAGHDAD - A spate of Shia militia attacks on at least 13 Sunni mosques in Iraq kindled fears of renewed sectarianism, reminiscent of the dark days of 2006-07 when tens of thousands of Shias and Sunnis were killed in revenge attacks.
The latest conflict stems from possible fallout from Saudi Arabia’s dispute with Iran in Iraq, the only country other than Iran with a significant Shia influence.
Weary of growing Shia and Iranian influence in a region long dominated by Sunni Muslim governments, Saudi Arabia has been active in Iraq and neighbouring Syria to thwart the Shias’ sway in those countries.
The attacks on nine mosques in Iraq’s eastern province of Diyala and four in the south-central province of Babil came immediately after Saudi Arabia undertook a series of bold moves illustrating a resolve to stand up to Iran.
On January 1st, Riyadh reopened its embassy in Baghdad after a closure of 25 years in protest of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Violence erupted on January 2nd after Saudi Arabia executed Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, triggering angry reactions in Shia-dominated Iraq and Iran and other Shia communities in the region. Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran after mobs attacked the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran.
Despite the intensity of the attacks on the Sunni mosques, which claimed the lives of at least 60 people and wounded another 130 Iraqi Shias and Sunnis after buildings were bombed, ransacked and torched, observers said such violence is likely to be short-lived.
“This wave of violence will soon subside as Iraqis are aware of the wider implications, which is another wave of sectarianism that no side has a stomach for at this point,” said Ahmed Khazali, a social worker monitoring the situation in Diyala.
“It’s evident that the Shia community doesn’t want the tensions to endure as it has pledged to fix all the destroyed Sunni mosques in Diyala,” Khazali said.
Shia leaders inside and outside government called on Iraqis to remain focused on the root cause of the problem, which, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, is the Islamic State (ISIS), which has a stake in instigating sectarian strife to hinder the Iraqi Army offensive that has defeated the militant group in a number of areas across Iraq.
Abadi called a recent assault in Baghdad a “desperate attempt” by militants to retaliate after their loss in Ramadi, the provincial capital of the vast western Anbar desert region. In separate claims of responsibility, ISIS confirmed attacks on targets that led to the raids on mosques, which the Sunni Religious Endowment termed “heinous crimes”.
“The revenge of the angry mobs by blowing up and attacking mosques is a shameful criminal act, like that of suicidal attacks that have claimed the lives of innocent civilians,” said the endowment’s Iraq head, Sheikh Abdul-Latif al- Hemayem.
“These people follow a wicked agenda aimed at inciting sedition and creating instability in Iraq.”
In protest of the attacks, 69 lawmakers and cabinet ministers participated in a one-day boycott of parliament and cabinet sessions on January 19th, Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni MP who was among the boycotting officials, said the protesting officials demanded the government to bring the perpetrators to justice.
In recent months, Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by US-led air strikes forced ISIS out of Sinjar, an area that lies in the autonomous Kurdish north and is the provincial capital of Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
But the jihadist group appears resilient after previous defeats, often seizing territory on other frontiers. In the days after ISIS fighters were driven out of Ramadi, the group launched a coordinated assault on the western Anbar town of Haditha.
On January 11th, ISIS went after softer targets in Baghdad and Muqdadiyah, with attacks that appeared to be aimed at killing Shia civilians and aggravating sectarian tensions — a strategy pursued with horrifying results by the group’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Gunmen targeted the entrance to al-Jawhara mall in a mainly Shia neighbourhood of Baghdad on January 11th with a car bomb and a suicide bomber before storming in and opening fire. They killed 18 people and wounded more than 50. A car bombing elsewhere in the city killed five people and wounded 12.
Also on January 11th, back-to-back suicide attacks on a coffee shop frequented by Shia militias killed at least 24 people and wounded 52 in Muqdadiyah, about 90km north-east of Baghdad. ISIS claimed both major attacks.
Angry Shia mobs responded to the Muqdadiyah bombings by attacking several Sunni mosques, destroying two and killing an imam, according to Hemayem.