Angered by Fatal Raid, Shiites Exit Unity Talks
As coffins of shooting victims rolled past wailing mourners, Iraq’s dominant Shiite Muslim political alliance Monday condemned the United States for a weekend raid that left at least 16 people dead in a Shiite neighborhood and said it was for now dropping out of U.S.-guided talks aimed at forming a unity government.
Shiite political leaders and U.S. military commanders gave wildly contradictory accounts of the Sunday evening raid in northeast Baghdad, evidence of a growing rift between the United States and the Shiite-led government that came to power after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.
The raid also widened a split between the Sunni Arab-led Defense Ministry, which oversees the Iraqi troops who took part in the operation, and the Shiite-dominated police force. Rivalry between the two security forces has fueled apprehension that the sectarian violence could drag them into a civil war.
The Shiites said that the target of the military operation was a Shiite mosque and that many of the victims were unarmed worshipers.
U.S. commanders said the raid, conducted by Iraqi special forces with American advisors, occurred six blocks away at an office complex where kidnappers were holding a hostage and a hidden cache of weapons. The hostage, an Iraqi dental technician, was freed and 16 militants were killed in an ensuing battle, they said.
“After the fact, someone went in and made the scene look different than it was,” Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters in a conference call, suggesting that widely televised images purporting to depict a massacre at a mosque were propaganda tricks by unnamed parties. He did not elaborate.
Four witnesses standing separately outside the mosque, in the capital’s Ur district, on Monday described an invasion of their streets by Iraqi and U.S. troops the night before. They said helicopters had flown overhead as Humvees surrounded the area around the Mustafa mosque and an adjacent office of Dawa, a Shiite party.
One witness said that what he saw inside the mosque was ghastly.
“There were bullet casings and trails of blood on the floor of the prayer hall,” said Hamid Jabar, a 61-year-old pensioner who lives across the street and said he entered the mosque shortly after troops left. “It looked like the men had been executed and dragged to the smaller rooms.
“Some were shot in the head and others in the chest,” he said. “Some of the bodies were ripped open with knives.”
Jabar and other witnesses said the Iraqi forces had fired their way into the Shiite party office and then burst into the mosque during evening prayers, handcuffing, blindfolding and shooting worshipers.
Two hours later, when quiet returned, residents who had cowered in nearby homes ventured into the compound and found bodies slumped in the party office and piled into two small rooms off the prayer hall, Jabar said.
He said there were 18 dead, all males -- three in their 60s and one in his teens. At least 13, including a guard, were identified as members of Dawa, the party of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.
The facade of the party office and several houses on the street were pocked with bullet holes. The three-story building where Jabar lives was partly burned by what residents called a rocket or grenade attack by the invading troops.
“My shop was full of people trying to escape the shooting,” said Sayaid Thamir, a 50-year-old merchant who works across the street from the mosque. “Soldiers were shooting randomly everywhere. Cars were not allowed to move.
“What happened was terrifying,” he said. “If they were looking for terrorists, why couldn’t they do it quietly?”
No gunfire came from the mosque, several witnesses said.
“The Americans started the raid without giving us a chance to negotiate or to find out what they wanted,” Sheik Safa Timimi, the imam of the mosque, said in an interview Monday on Iraqi radio. “Some young men tried to approach them but were shot at.”
An Iraqi reporter for The Times who interviewed the four witnesses was unable to look inside the rooms of the mosque or the party office, which were locked Monday.
The explanation offered later by Chiarelli, in a post-midnight conference call, was also impossible to verify. An overnight curfew prevented reporters from going to the office complex, which the general said was the only target of the raid.
Whichever story is true, the killings threw Iraq’s delicately balanced leadership into a crisis as it struggled to contain rising sectarian violence between majority Shiites and the country’s Sunni minority. Weeks of intense negotiations to form a government with the Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and secular blocs elected to parliament in December came to a halt, as Shiite representatives Monday failed to show up for talks on forming the government.
Shiite leaders said they were discussing the fallout from the killings and would not return to the multiparty talks until Wednesday at the earliest.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite who heads Iraq’s police forces, called the raid “an unjustified and horrible violation.”
He said U.S. forces and the Iraqi army controlled the area of operation and barred police from entering.
In an unusually harsh condemnation of the United States, the United Iraqi Alliance called the raid a “serious crime” aimed at trying to weaken it politically against the Sunni-led insurgency.
“The government must find out the truth about these special units of the Iraqi army that function outside government control and perpetuate massacres with the support of the U.S. Army,” said the statement by the Alliance, the Shiite coalition that leads the interim government.
U.S. officials and Iraqi critics of the government have blamed Jabr’s ministry for sectarian killings, saying many have been carried out by Shiite militiamen who joined the police force but in fact operate as sectarian death squads.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has demanded that Jabr be replaced by someone not strongly identified with a particular sect.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said after speaking to Khalilzad on Monday that he would supervise a joint U.S.-Iraqi commission to investigate Sunday’s incident.
“Those who are behind this attack must be brought to justice and punished,” Talabani said in a brief televised address.
Anti-American sentiment stirred up by the killings filled the airwaves of Al Iraqiya, the state-run television network, and other broadcast media for a second day Monday.
It spilled into the working-class streets of Ur as seven pickup trucks and other vehicles bore 16 wooden coffins in a slow cortege, followed by hundreds of mourners on foot. Residents said two other bodies had been sent away earlier for burial.
“No, no to America!” chanted a man identified only as Sheik Jalel, standing in the back of the lead truck. “No, no to the devil! No, no to Israel!”
The procession and its police escort wound past the crumbling white walls of the mosque compound, which bore banners denouncing the attack.
People spilled out of nearby shops and modest homes to march with the coffins. Others watched and wept from behind iron gates.
Chiarelli, the U.S. commander, declined to comment on possible involvement by the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose political movement joined in condemning the raid.
“I think the backlash has been caused by the folks who set the scene up,” the general said.
Neighbors of the mosque said Sadr’s militia did not show up and confront the U.S. and Iraqi forces, dismissing early reports of a clash.
The conference call by Chiarelli and Army Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, the commander of Multinational Division Baghdad, was the first U.S. military briefing on Sunday’s operation. Iraq’s Defense Ministry has not commented on the operation.
Chiarelli said 50 Iraqi special forces troops arrived to raid the office complex at dusk Sunday, backed by 25 U.S. advisors, and came under fire from three sides as they neared the building. He said he did not know the affiliation of the insurgents.
The troops went in and “cleared the compound,” he said, killing 16 and capturing three wounded militants along with 18 other suspects.
“It was the Iraqi forces who did the fighting,” he added. “There was gunfire from every room.”
The general said the freed dental technician had been taken hostage earlier in the day, “shown a picture of his daughter and told if he didn’t pay $20,000 he was going to be dead the next day.”
Thurman, whose division controls Baghdad, said the raid netted 34 assault rifles and some rocket-propelled grenades.
Asked about the Shiite alliance’s condemnation of the raid, Chiarelli said: “It was coordinated through military channels. Not every operation we run is coordinated with every politician in Iraq.”
Times staff writers Louise Roug and Saif Rasheed and special correspondent Asmaa Waguih contributed to this report.