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August 22, 2014 6:25 pm
Gunmen shot dead more than 60 worshippers during Friday prayers at a Sunni mosque north of Baghdad, complicating efforts to form a unity government that could tackle the wave of militancy threatening to tear Iraq apart.
Sunni officials and news agencies said a Shia militia was behind the attack, which wounded dozens and has brought to a standstill negotiations between Iraq’s ruling Shia majority and disgruntled Sunnis to form a new government – a process both sides earlier this week said had been very positive.
The country badly needs to form a government to halt the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis), which has over-run about a third of Iraqi territory and is threatening to reach the capital.
Dozens of worshippers were inside the Imam Wais mosque of Diyala province on the Muslim day of prayer, when the suspected militia men opened fire, wounding dozens in addition to those killed.
Dhafer al-Ani, a Sunni parliamentarian, held Nouri al-Maliki, the previous Prime Minister, responsible for the killings. He said Mr Maliki’s government was responsible for security forces and many of the Shia militias now roving the country – ostensibly to confront Isis, but also intimidating Sunni civilians.
“It seems that whoever did this was fulfilling Mr Maliki’s warning that, if he was removed, the ‘doors of hell’ would be opened,” Mr Ani said. “A crime like this was meant to impede negotiations and the formation of a government . . . The internal and foreign ministries must take responsibility and rein in these [Shia] groups.”
Iraq’s minority Sunnis and Kurds loathed Mr Maliki, who headed Iraq’s government for eight years. They accused him of discriminating against them and marginalising their groups.
For months, the premier resisted attempts to remove him, both by local blocs and the government’s main foreign backers, the United States and Iran. But he finally stepped down to allow his fellow Shia politician Haydar al-Abadi try to form a government.
The latest dramatic attack will harm attempts to enlist Sunni residents and tribesmen to help fight the Isis onslaught. The strategy is seen as crucial to ending the violence sweeping the country.
Sectarian strife has intensified in recent months over Isis’s lightning advances starting with its June 10 takeover of Mosul, in which state forces melted away with barely a fight. Shia volunteer militias – many of them with Iranian backing or training – have filled the void left by the army but the sectarian nature of their formation has only increased tensions.
Many Sunni figures seemed enthusiastic about forming a government with Mr Abadi, but Jaber Jaberi, a parliamentarian, said the Friday attack ground such efforts to a halt.
“We were supposed to have a meeting tonight but we’ve had to postpone it,” he said, speaking from Baghdad. “We’ve been receiving many calls from tribal leaders, clerics, local politicians and residents, asking us to stop negotiations over the government. They say there’s no way for us to continue such talks.”
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