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Sunni-Shiite Tensions Rise in Baghdad

December 11, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ In the poor neighborhood of Hurriyah, there was praise for Osama bin Laden, nostalgia for the days of Saddam Hussein and deep resentment of Shiite Muslims.

Two days after an attack on a Sunni mosque that was blamed on radical Shiites, the western Baghdad district was rife with sectarian tension Thursday _ a bad sign for a nation whose ethnic and religious divisions had been kept in check for decades under Saddam.

Eight months after the U.S.-led coalition ousted Saddam from power, the threat of conflict is real. Many Iraqis blame the occupation, citing the lawlessness and chaos that prevail in post-Saddam Iraq.

``This is all the work of America,″ concluded Farouk Khamis, the imam of the stricken mosque. ``It’s divide and rule.″

After decades of suppression by Iraq’s Arab Sunni minority, Shiites have emerged as the country’s single most dominant community. The Sunnis have further been distressed by what they see as the excessive attention Iraq’s U.S. occupiers are paying to the views of Shiite religious leaders.

The worst and most persistent attacks against U.S. troops have been in Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad as well as in the capital itself, where the 5 million residents are equally divided between the two Muslim communities.

While the Sunnis lost a patron in Saddam, the Shiites have generally welcomed the dictator’s overthrow despite their misgivings about the Americans. There have been only a few attacks against U.S. forces in Shiite areas, something that has led some Sunnis to cast doubt on the patriotism of the Iraqi Shiites.

But, contrary to the once widely held belief that Saddam’s removal would touch off a bloody conflict between the two communities, Sunni-Shiite clashes have been infrequent and limited in scale, with religious leaders from both sides often intervening to prevent matters from getting out of hand.

Qais al-Saadi, a 41-year-old Shiite who spent 20 years in Saddam’s elite Republican Guards and is now selling spices in a Hurriyah store, said hotheads on both sides were responsible for the neighborhood’s troubles. ``When Saddam was in power, none of us dared fight with others,″ he said.

Shiites have been at pains not to project their strength too forcefully, fearing that such action would cast doubt on their ability to handle their new role.

But incidents like Tuesday’s attack on the mosque of Ahbab al-Mustafa, or ``Admirers of the Prophet Muhammad,″ are often enough to stir sectarian hatreds for a time, fueling radicalism.

Three people were killed in the attack. Sunnis in the area immediately blamed supporters of the Shiite al-Dawa party. On Wednesday, hundreds of Sunnis took part in a funeral march for the three victims and briefly took over a Shiite mosque. And, in a display of defiance, they took the bodies of the three inside the Shiite mosque and offered ritual prayers before their coffins.

Shiite residents said some Sunnis who stormed the mosque tore off portraits of Imam Ali, the 7th-century founder of the faith and a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunni leaders blamed Wednesday’s provocation on youths.

On Thursday, a U.S. Army tank was deployed outside the Shiite mosque, a one-story building that once belonged to Saddam’s local Baath party branch. Members of Iraq’s U.S.-trained Civil Defense Corps, armed and in full combat gear, stood guard at both sides of the street.

An Iraqi police car was parked near the Sunni mosque, where recordings of Quranic verses were carried on loudspeakers. Male relatives of one of the victims _ 32-year-old taxi driver and part-time security guard Abdel-Qoudous Salman al-Duleimi _ sat in a tent erected outside the mosque, where they received the condolences of friends and relatives.

Some half dozen bearded men with assault rifles guarded the mosque. Inside the imam’s office, two AK-47s stood against the wall. Extra magazines sat atop a nearby desk. Elsewhere in the imam’s sparsely furnished office were half a dozen men in Arab gowns, winter coats and checkered scarves. All were bearded, a hallmark of Islamic fundamentalism.

Khamis, 43, spoke nostalgically about the ``days of safety and security″ under Saddam’s rule. Taha al-Mishhadani, a laborer in his 40s, praised bin Laden, the al-Qaida terror mastermind. ``We would have been proud if we belonged to his group, but we are not,″ he said.

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