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Government Fissures Widening

Times Staff Writer

Months of bloodshed have threatened to loosen the bonds holding together Iraq’s fractious government, with tensions between political blocs spilling out in recent days in fiery rhetoric as well as fighting that left more than 130 people dead nationwide.

Disagreements over several contentious issues burst into the open with a highly divisive vote on the issue of parceling Iraq into federal districts, finger-pointing over the assassination of a top politician’s brother and a series of massacres between rival Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs north of the capital.

There, among the lush palm groves and towns along the Tigris River, at least 73 people were killed in sectarian violence over the weekend. Shiite gunmen, seeking revenge for the beheadings of 26 farmers whose bodies were found in Sunni villages, marauded through the farming hub of Balad, about 50 miles north of the capital, officials said.

The assailants randomly killed Sunni men in the market, hospitals and a used-car lot, the officials said, and 12 victims reportedly burned to death. An Iraqi army source said a total of 47 people were killed.

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Sunni tribesmen in farms outside Balad lobbed mortar rounds into the Shiite-dominated town and armed themselves for further fighting, said residents of the Sunni village of Duluiya. U.S. forces imposed a curfew on the area.

Meanwhile, authorities awaited news of the fate of several groups of Shiite men kidnapped from minibuses over the weekend on their way out of the nearby Shiite village of Dujayl.

Also Sunday, six car bomb explosions killed about 10 people and injured dozens around the northern city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by Arabs as well as ethnic Kurds who inhabit a semiautonomous section of northern Iraq.

In the capital, at least 52 Iraqis, including two children, were reported killed in shootings, rocket attacks, bombings and clandestine sectarian slayings.

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Three U.S. solders were killed Saturday when their vehicle was caught in the blast of a homemade bomb south of Baghdad, the military said, disclosing no further details. At least 52 U.S. military personnel died in Iraq during the first two weeks of the month, putting October on pace to be the deadliest for U.S. troops in the country since January 2005.

Iraq’s Sunni insurgents are fighting a guerrilla war against American forces and the U.S.-backed Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government. Shiite gunmen, with possible ties to powerful political parties, fight back by killing suspected insurgents and ordinary Sunnis alike. Many Iraqis call the waves of violence a civil war tempered only by the ongoing political process.

But relations between the main Sunni and Shiite political blocs also have worsened over the last week. On Sunday, the government indefinitely postponed a highly publicized conference to discuss reconciliation among Iraq’s disparate groups. According to a news release, the conference, scheduled to begin Saturday, was canceled for unspecified “emergency reasons.”

Acrimony among the country’s major ethnic and religious groups swelled after the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated parliament passed a law Wednesday allowing for the eventual division of Iraq into federal regions. The vote came despite the strenuous objections of Sunnis, who view the plan as a recipe for carving up Iraq.

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Sunni Arabs suspect that Shiites have agreed to cede the northern oil hub of Kirkuk to autonomy-minded Kurds in exchange for support of an oil-rich Shiite southern region. About 500 mostly Sunni Arab tribal leaders attending a summit in northern Iraq on Sunday vowed to fight any federal partitioning of the country, which they fear might further impoverish Sunnis in the resource-poor central and western regions.

“We are demanding that the government and the parliament not force this matter on Iraq and its people,” said Sheik Abdul-Rahman Asi. “There are many political forces that reject this matter.”

Relations between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite political blocs seem to have reached a nadir.

Earlier in the day, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni group, issued a statement all but accusing the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry in the Oct. 9 slaying of Amer Hashimi. He was the brother of Tariq Hashimi, one of Iraq’s two vice presidents and the Sunni bloc’s leader.

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“The cars that broke through the [Iraqi army] checkpoints were new military cars and there were people inside wearing military uniforms,” the statement said. “This is available only to the militias that are cooperating with the security apparatuses.”

Shiite officials have accused Sunni insurgents in Hashimi’s killing, noting that he lived in an area under the control of the Sunni-dominated Defense Ministry. In a televised speech Sunday evening, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, while acknowledging the need to disband unruly militias that support him, blamed Iraq’s problems on Sunni “terrorists.”

U.S. and Iraqi officials had hoped the ongoing political process in the wake of elections last December would lower tensions and help ease the violence, but some now worry that the political and religious leaders have exacerbated problems.

“There’s a sectarian conflict going on now between the Sunnis and Shiites,” said Isam Rawi of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Assn., a clerical group. “But the religious and political discourse has a great effect in elevating these fights. It’s not easy to target or kill or displace somebody unless somebody tells you those people are infidels or collaborators.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

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Times special correspondents in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Samarra and Taji contributed to this report.


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