Uneasy calm holds after Samarra attack

Times Staff Writers

The wide avenue outside was eerily silent Thursday as the shopkeeper placed a tiny frozen chicken onto the counter. He agreed with a customer that the price, about four times what it would have been before the war, was outlandish.

“Everything is worse now,” he groused. The bombing of a major Shiite Muslim shrine a day earlier, he added, is sure to make conditions worse.

Asked who was to blame for the attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra, the second in less than 16 months, Maithan, who feared giving his surname, was quick to respond.


“The American occupation,” he said.

As Iraqis spent a second day under the curfew imposed after the mosque blast, ordinary Iraqis such as Maithan blamed the United States for planting the seeds of sectarianism in the nation, and for the spiraling inflation, blackouts and deteriorating health conditions.

The reaction to the blast has been a far cry from the wave of deadly reprisals against Sunni Muslims that followed the first attack on the shrine in February 2006.

Shiites appear to be taking their cue from radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, who said Sunnis were not responsible for the attack and blamed the blast on U.S. and Israeli agents trying to divide Muslims.

“To split the Muslims is a card that the occupation is playing,” said his spokesman, Salman Fraiji. “The ill-intentioned colonizers have an old saying: ‘divide and conquer.’ ”

Sadr, whose Al Mahdi militia was blamed for the reprisal killings after the 2006 blast, has stepped up his anti-American rhetoric, observers say, in an effort to position himself for a powerful political role when U.S. forces leave Iraq.

Since the start in February of the U.S. military crackdown in Baghdad and environs, Sadr has been uncharacteristically subdued, an indication that he is waiting for U.S. forces to leave before reclaiming a prominent role, said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

“Definitely there is a sort of strategy in play, which is ‘wait and see,’ ” Nasr said, noting that Sadr, unlike the U.S. troops, faced no deadline pressure.

Streets were deserted Thursday in most cities because of a ban on vehicular traffic, which appeared to be holding off a replay of the tit-for-tat Shiite-Sunni violence that erupted after the 2006 attack.

Five bodies, presumed victims of sectarian death squads, were found in Baghdad, police said. That number was about one-fifth the usual daily toll.

Elsewhere, however, police and witnesses reported a few attacks on Sunni mosques, including three in the mixed Sunni-Shiite city of Iskandariya, 25 miles south of Baghdad. Two of the mosques there were demolished overnight, and an explosion brought down the minaret of Iskandariya’s main mosque, police said.

A mosque in the town of Tunis, about 45 miles south of Baghdad, also was attacked, and Iraqi soldiers discovered explosives planted in a mosque in Jabala, about 40 miles south of Baghdad.

Some of the worst violence appeared to have been directed against the Green Zone, the heavily fortified enclave in Baghdad where the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. and Iraqi government offices are located. Iraqi police said seven mortar rounds crashed into the area Thursday afternoon, killing three civilians.

Whether the appeals for unity from Sadr and other political and religious leaders would be heeded once the curfew is lifted was unclear. Sadr’s message preaching nonsectarianism and denouncing the U.S. occupation was, however, being heard.

In Samarra, where additional U.S. forces were deployed at the request of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, Mahmood Hashim blamed “the occupation forces and the government” for the attack, saying they held “full responsibility.”

Khalid Hisham agreed, and recalled walking past the shrine each day on the way to his restaurant. Hisham said his fellow Sunnis welcomed the Shiite pilgrims who visited the mosque before the first attack, which blew off its golden dome. The distrust now between Sunnis and Shiites was unheard of before, he said.

“I don’t know what has happened to this country and to this city,” he said. “All of this because of the ... occupation forces causing chaos. First the dome, and then the minarets.”

Maliki and U.S. officials have blamed insurgents linked to Al Qaeda for the attack Wednesday. Maliki also said there were indications that some of the mosque’s guards, who are members of the provincial police, were involved. He said several had been detained for questioning.

Even if Al Qaeda groups were involved, some Iraqis said it would not alter their opinion that the United States ultimately was responsible.

“Al Qaeda is being aided by the Americans, because America wants to create sedition among different Iraqi sects,” said Akram Khafaji, whose down-at-the-heels cafe once was the liveliest place on a traffic circle in Baghdad.

A billboard overlooking the traffic circle features a large photograph of Sadr, a relatively recent addition.

“Every honorable citizen should oppose the American occupation,” said Abdul Wahab Ali, who like the others refused to say whether he was a Shiite or Sunni.

Back at Maithan’s shop, a deal had been made on the chicken. Feeling sorry for the customer and her toddler, Maithan had knocked the price down to 4,500 Iraqi dinars, from 5,000. She seemed satisfied with the savings of about 35 cents as she walked out the door with the frozen poultry.

Another woman came in to return plastic AK-47s purchased earlier for her sons. It turned out they already had some, she explained.

“This is what the kids want,” the woman said. “It is what they see in real life, so they want to imitate it. And we want to keep them happy.”

Special correspondent Hameed Rasheed in Samarra and special correspondents in Baghdad and Hillah contributed to this report.