Sectarian Violence Mounts After Shrine Bombing

Scores of Iraqis — mostly Sunni Arabs — have been killed since Wednesday's bombing of a major Shiite shrine north of Baghdad. Sunni political leaders have withdrawn from talks on a new government and say they will not return until attacks on Sunnis by mobs of Shiite men are halted.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. The tension in Iraq between Shiites and Sunnis has never been higher since the U.S. invasion three years ago. More than 100 Iraqis have been killed in violence that has flared since yesterday's bombing of a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad.

SIEGEL: Shiites have attacked Sunni mosques and neighborhoods, and throughout the country, people have taken to the streets. Here are the sounds of some of those protests.

(Soundbite of protestors in Iraq)

BLOCK: In Najaf, protestors marched through the Shiite holy city, carrying flags and banners.

(Soundbite of Shiite cleric addressing crowd)

SIEGEL: A cleric in Kut addressed a crowd through a loudspeaker, asking how long must the faithful put up with this kind of attack?

(Soundbite of Shiite rally)

BLOCK: And in Samawah, in the south, Shiites rallied against the mosque bombing. It was a scene that took place throughout much of Iraq. Tomorrow, the Iraqi government has announced it will enforce a daytime curfew to try to stop the violence.

SIEGEL: In this half hour of the program, we're going to take an in-depth look at what's happening in Iraq. We'll speak with our own Anne Garrels, who was in Najaf yesterday. We'll hear about the divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and we'll talk with Iraq's national security advisor.

BLOCK: First, to NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad. And, Jamie, give us a sense of the scope of today's violence.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Well, the bodies have been delivered to the morgues all day. We don't know if they're all Sunni, but we've heard from morgue officials stories of families who've come to claim the bodies and they start cursing the Shiites and swearing revenge. There've been more attacks on Sunni mosques despite the appeals for calm and restraint. The Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars says today that 168 Sunni mosques have been attacked. It also says that ten Sunni clerics were killed, and 15 have been abducted.

In one case where the casualties are more likely to be Shiite is a situation in Diyala, where 48 bodies were found dumped along the side of a main road today. We were told that the 48 had gone to a demonstration yesterday to protest the attack on the shrine in Samarra, and as they were traveling home they were stopped by insurgents, dragged out of their vehicles and shot dead.

BLOCK: What's been the response from Iraqi security forces trying to respond to this violence?

TARABAY: Well, they're meant to be keeping order, but we've seen in some areas where the Sunni mosques have been targeted that the Iraqi security forces are doing practically nothing to prevent any damage. This is one of the criticisms that the Sunnis have long had against the Shiite-dominated government, that the security forces are heavily Shiite and deliberately target Sunnis.

In just one example today in the Baghdad neighborhood of Zeyuna, Iraqi national guards were seen cheering and waving on gunmen dressed in black, and these guys are believed to be members of the Mahdi Army, the militia that is loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. All the security forces are on high alert, but it seems that they don't seem to be doing their job in some places.

BLOCK: And what about U.S. troops? How visible are they in responding to these attacks?

TARABAY: Well, the Americans have been keeping a low profile so far. Obviously there have been statements from the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, and from the top military commander, General George Casey. They've asked for restraint. But the troops have not come out into the streets.

BLOCK: On the political front now, there's news today that one of the main Sunni political groups has pulled out of talks on forming a national unity government. How serious a setback is that?

TARABAY: Well, it could further stall the formation of a national unity government. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani says that this is exactly what that attack was designed to do, and he went on television today warning that no one would be safe if civil war occurred. He is trying to put the process back on track, and today he had a big meeting at his house in Baghdad, and a lot of political leaders turned up. But the biggest Sunni faction in parliament didn't. That's the Iraqi Accordance Front.

And one of the leaders of this front, Tariq al-Hashmi, said he sent a letter to Talabani outlining the reasons why he didn't come. He said he's not going to attend negotiations with people who are attacking Sunnis. He and his group say that they'll resume negotiations if they get an apology, if the damaged mosques are compensated, and if the perpetrators are arrested and brought to justice.

BLOCK: NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad. Thanks very much.

TARABAY: Thank you.

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