Nancy A. Youssef / Knight Ridder – 2006-03-30 23:26:48
BAGHDAD, Iraq (March 29, 2006) — Top Shiite political leaders condemned US forces on Monday for raiding a suspected Shiite terrorist cell in what they said was a mosque and killing more than a dozen people, exposing the growing schism between the country’s largest and most powerful sect and US officials.
Shiite leaders charged that Sunday’s raid in northeast Baghdad was an attempt by the Americans to distance themselves from the sect. They claimed that US officials were trying to give Sunnis more power than they won in the Dec. 15 election because they feared that Iraq would be controlled exclusively by Shiites, rather than shared with the Sunnis. Shiites represent 60 percent of Iraq’s population and won a near-majority of seats in the parliament.
A widespread loss of support from the Shiites could make Iraq almost impossible to govern and could put US forces stationed in Iraq in a precarious position.
“There is a policy by the American administration and its ambassador in Iraq to regain balance (between opposing Shiite and Sunni forces) by creating combating fronts,” said Salam al-Maliki, the minister of transportation and a member of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s party.
Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Multinational Corps Iraq, said Sunday’s raid didn’t involve a mosque but an office complex that held terrorists and an Iraqi hostage.
He said about 50 Iraqi special forces members led the attack and were fired upon by insurgents protecting the compound, prompting them to return fire.
“They didn’t go in guns blazing,” Chiarelli said.
About 25 US military troops supported the Iraqi forces, but they didn’t kill anyone in the complex, US military officials said.
Identifying a mosque isn’t always easy for non-Arabic speakers, since some mosques don’t have the characteristic domes and minarets. Many Shiites, who were forbidden from building mosques during Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, converted ordinary neighborhood buildings into places of worship after the US invasion. The site of the Sunday’s raid had been recently converted into a mosque, Shiite leaders said.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a coalition spokesman, said the complex had three buildings and that military officials determined that two were off-limits. The third, which they entered, was under constant guard, he said.
Members of the major Shiite slate, the United Iraqi Alliance, warned US officials against fighting Shiite forces.
“I warn them (the US) that a battle with the calm giant Shiite means they are falling into a dangerous swamp,” said Kuthair al-Khuzaie, a spokesman of the Shiite Dawa party, at a press conference. “The US is making things more complicated and losing their credibility among the Iraqis.”
The raid targeted Shiites, some of whom were affiliated with al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, US officials said. Al-Sadr has called for his followers to remain calm.
Since the December election – in which the United Iraqi Alliance won 10 seats short of the majority – the US envoy in Iraq has hinted that American support for the Shiites isn’t ironclad. US officials have pushed the government to rein in militias, most of which are run by Shiites.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, has said that Shiite-dominated militias must be integrated into government forces. On Saturday, he said that Shiite-led militias are creating more violence than the Sunni-led insurgency, a charge not heard before the election.
Although Shiite leaders say they want a national unity government, many aren’t willing to dismantle their militias, saying their armed factions will protect them if their party – or the government – falls apart. They’ve dismissed suggestions that the militias are contributing to the sectarian violence and instead charge that the Iraqi police and military have been infiltrated by enemy elements who are stirring up trouble.
“These militias have an honorable history in fighting the tyrant (Saddam) and supporting the political process,” al-Maliki said.
US officials believe that as long as militias remain an unchecked security faction, sectarian violence will increase, delaying the drawdown of US forces.
Since the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra, retaliatory killings have surged. Dozens of bodies, mostly Sunnis, have been dumped in fields and side streets, many showing signs of torture. US officials believe members of the Mahdi Army have been behind much of the violence.
The split between the Shiites and the United States emerged after the election, when the two sides strongly disagreed over how the new Iraq should take shape, said James Denselow, an Iraq specialist at the London-based Chatham House, a foreign-policy research group.
Since the December election, “the US no longer directly influences the process,” he said. “They are battling the idea of a national unity government against the reality of a severely fractured state along sectarian lines.”
The US Embassy declined to comment on Monday.
Top leaders have been haggling over the government since the election, but Shiite leaders said they suspended negotiations after the raid.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani announced that he would lead an investigation, a common practice after major events. Iraqi officials don’t publicly release the results of their investigations.
Knight Ridder special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Ahmed Mukhtar contributed to this report.
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