Iraqi Security Sweep Stirs up Trouble

The Iraqi government is praising a major security operation now under way in the capital. Spokesmen say more than 100 insurgents have been killed, and hundreds of others arrested. But leaders of Iraq's Sunni minority allege that the security sweep is specifically aimed at their community.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A major security operation in Baghdad is increasing sectarian tensions in the city. The Iraqi government is calling Operation Lightning a success, even as insurgents have killed dozens of people in suicide bombings and other attacks around the country. Today Iraq's interior minister told reporters that more than 100 insurgents have been killed and 700 suspects arrested during the Baghdad crackdown. But as NPR's Deborah Amos reports, Sunni Muslims in the Iraqi capital are complaining that the operation is targeting their community.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

The Abu Hanifa mosque in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood was so crowded during Friday prayers, worshipers packed the outside courtyard. They came to share their anger with Sunni Muslim leaders, men who have emerged since the fall of Saddam to speak for the minority Sunni Muslims of Iraq.

(Soundbite of Friday prayers)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: `Operation Lightning is against us,' thundered the prayer leader.

(Soundbite of Friday prayers)

Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) Our cities are under siege, our young people are arrested, and no one can perform prayers in our mosques.

AMOS: It was an unusual show of unity for Sunni leaders who don't agree on much except a grievance over the loss of ruling status since the fall of Saddam's regime.

(Soundbite of crowd yelling and chanting)

AMOS: For the first time, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has cooperated with the new government, and the Islamic Scholars Association, often believed to have ties with the insurgency, prayed and politicked together. The angry union comes at a sensitive time. The new Iraqi government, dominated by Shiite Muslims, has been reaching out to Sunnis, even though Sunnis mostly stayed away from the polls in the national election in January. There are fears Iraq could slide into civil war unless more Sunnis are convinced to end support for the insurgency and join in the political process. But relations between Sunnis and the Shiite-led government are volatile.

Another example at a Baghdad hotel this week, where more than 200 Sunnis in suits and tribal robes gathered to protest the arrest of a leading Sunni politician by US soldiers. Military officials admitted it was a mistake. The Iraqi government acted swiftly to get him released, but the damage had been done. Jawad Al-Malaki(ph), a government official, tried to assure the assembled Sunnis that he, too, shared their anger. It was time the Americans handed over security to the Iraqis to end these mistakes, he told them.

(Soundbite of protest gathering)

Mr. JAWAD AL-MALAKI (Iraqi Government Official): (Through Translator) Condemning and objecting is not enough anymore. The security forces, police and army are ready to chase the suspects.

AMOS: But a Sunni speaker, Dr. Osam al-Rawi, made it clear the anger was not just directed at US forces but at the Iraqi government itself. Al-Rawi charged Iraqi soldiers and police were targeting Sunnis. They had arrested a cleric, he charged, and tortured him.

(Soundbite of protest gathering)

Dr. OSAM AL-RAWI: (Through Translator) I saw the terrifying torture that even devils would not dare to do. He said that when he was hung up from the ceiling fan, they were telling him to confess.

AMOS: By the time al-Rawi finished condemning the government, he had swayed the crowd.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering and chanting)

AMOS: And they joined him in a pledge to continue support for an insurgency that has grown ever more violent in the past month.

(Soundbite of protest gathering)

Dr. AL-RAWI: (Through Translator) By God, I will never ask anyone after this day to put down his weapons. Let anyone punish me for saying that.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering and chanting)

AMOS: It is in this heated atmosphere that the Iraqi government is trying to reach an agreement with Sunni leaders to nominate 13 Sunnis to join a committee that is to draft Iraq's new constitution. But Dr. Adal Al-Kayar(ph), an Iraqi political science professor, believes the numbers are not important; it is the process that must be open, he says, so all Iraqis have a say before the document is finalized.

Dr. ADAL AL-KAYAR (Iraqi Political Science Professor): First to publish after discuss with all this groups, or even with the Senate, and to publish it to the population and to do some voting for this constitution, and we will see.

AMOS: But time is short. The deadline for completing the constitution is now two months away. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.

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