Sectarian Tensions Are On The Rise In Iraq

Overall violence in Iraq has gone down in recent years but lately there's been a string of attacks targeting Shiite interests and security forces. Widespread protests in Sunni areas are calling for the downfall of the Shiite-led government.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Iraq, a series of explosions across Baghdad yesterday killed at least 21 people. The blasts targeted Shiite neighborhoods. The explosions come as sectarian tensions are on the rise again in Iraq. For the past month, protests against the Shiite-dominated government have threatened to engulf the country in chaos.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The Sunday blasts came in the morning, just as Iraqis were heading to work. Sunday is the first day of the workweek in Iraq. Witnesses said bombs planted in parked cars went off simultaneously in some neighborhoods. Overall violence in Iraq has gone down in recent years, but lately, there have been a string of attacks targeting Shiite interests and security forces. Tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are rising again in Iraq, as widespread protests in Sunni areas are calling for the downfall of the Shiite-led government.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: At this rally on Friday in the Sunni-dominated city of Ramadi, the protests were more sectarian than they have been in recent weeks. Be patient, Baghdad. We are coming, a speaker shouted. We will free you from the Persians and the Iranians - a clear reference to the Shiite-dominated government. The protests started earlier this year. Demonstrators claimed that women had been unlawfully detained and abused in prison. Detainees were released and the central government's army pulled out of predominantly Sunni cities like Fallujah. But still, the demonstrations continued. Last week, they threatened to march on Iraq's capital, Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The plan was to come to this famous mosque and shrine in Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya. But by the time Friday rolled around, the neighborhood was on total lockdown. No cars could come near the mosque. Only people with local IDs were allowed inside. We had to sneak into the women's prayer section of the mosque to hear the Friday sermon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: If this is protection, the preacher said of the security cordon, no thank you. We don't accept it. Preventing people from praying will not go unpunished by God.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: What's the point of participating in such a political system, the preacher went on. We must find other ways to reform.

Such threats in these parts are heard loud and clear by Shiites. After all, it was the Sunni areas of Iraq that first rose up against the American occupation and that saw the first presence of al-Qaida-linked groups who killed Americans and Shiites. While many in these areas eventually turned against al-Qaida, the recent past is all too close. After the sermon, a few hundred people - mostly men, but some women - filed into the courtyard to protest. The preacher had told them it was their duty.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

MCEVERS: Ibrahim al Soumydaie is an Iraqi lawyer, consultant and political analyst. He says, right now, neither side is willing to give in, and that's very dangerous in Iraq.

IBRAHIM AL SOUMYDAIE: The sectarianism in Iraq, it is still inside the souls of the Iraqi people. We didn't give it up. There is no American military inside. There is no one who can stand in the middle and control the fighters from each side, from Sunnis and Shiite.

MCEVERS: Soumydaie says Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is planning to crack down even harder on protests in the coming days. That, he says, would be a big mistake.

SOUMYDAIE: This mistake would lead to a civil war.

MCEVERS: In the past, there was a mediator who could bring the two sides together. That was Kurdish president Jalal Talabani. He recently suffered a stroke, and it's said he will not return to politics. Without him, Soumydaie says the best way forward is through an independent mediator of some sort, who comes from outside Iraq, be it the U.N. or elsewhere. That, he says, is the only way to cool the crisis before it gets worse. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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