Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading cleric, on Thursday made it clear that the Shia community must be free to defend itself, after having earlier called for calm after Wednesday’s bomb attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra. If necessary that would mean using militias rather than counting on government security forces or US troops.
“If the security agencies are unable to guarantee the necessary security, then the believers are able to do so with God’s help,” he said in a statement issued amid a wave of retaliatory attacks on Sunni mosques.
His comment, along with other statements from Shia officials in government, could be seen by Shia and Sunni as an acceptance of sectarian divides at the expense of efforts to build non-sectarian security forces and national institutions – in effect recognising that civil war could be imminent.
Adel Abdel Mahdi, Iraq’s vice-president and a key figure in the Shia-led religious bloc, said the government “should give a bigger role to the people” in security.
In previous months, suicide bombings against Shia mosques have prompted neighbourhoods to roll out barbed wire and defend themselves. But the attack on one of Shia Islam’s most sacred shrines – and the reprisals – have made the situation all the more tense.
The discovery of 47 bodies outside Baghdad on Thursday – reportedly protesters returning home from a demonstration against the bombing who were pulled from their buses and shot – may inflame the situation.
In the capital, the situation appeared to have calmed, thanks to the intervention of senior clerics and blame-shifting for the explosion on to the Americans.
Members of the Mahdi Army and other Shia militias, who on Wednesday set out to inflict revenge attacks on Sunni mosques, were yesterday spotted keeping order alongside police. Despite this, the government is to impose a daytime curfew in Baghdad and three surrounding provinces today.
So far, the nature of the violence – which mostly appears to be locally organised attacks on vulnerable targets – is not very different from the low-level tit-for-tat killings that occur daily.
But the Samarra bombing and the resultant attacks on Sunni mosques, clerics, political parties and civilians have hardened the attitudes of politicians from both sects against the kind of compromises that Washington hopes might end the insurgency.
Shia leaders, in particular, appear to be using the incident to rebuff US attempts to rein in the excesses of the security forces, and to allow them to use their own militias to counter the insurgency – two factors that would be likely to increase Sunni and Shia perceptions that the two groups are at war with one another.
The reports of violence over the past two days have been confused, with widely diverging body counts. Shia in Baghdad said the militias were largely targeting “takfiri” mosques, of those used by puritan Sunni who preach that Shia are not fellow Muslims.
After previous attacks on Shia religious targets, clerics including Mr Sistani and the younger more radical Moqtada al-Sadr, who was in Lebanon at the time of the Samarra bombing, have prevented widespread reprisals.
Just after the blast, Mr Sistani appealed for peaceful demonstrations, while Mr Sadr said the US was primarily to blame for failing to allow the Shia to protect themselves. But on Wednesday, their authority was not enough to avoid bloodshed.
“This is war . . . The anger on the street recognises neither Sadr nor Sistani,” said one Shia source in Baghdad. Now, however, Shia leaders appear to be channelling that anger towards a political goal: keeping control of the security forces.
The attack came just after Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy, issued an unusually blunt warning to Shia prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, currently in the process of forming a government, that the US might reduce aid if he retained a hardline Shia interior minister.
The struggle for control of the security forces, which in many ways is the struggle to avert a civil war by creating a body that both sides believes protects them, has become intractable because Shia and Sunni feel themselves to be victimised by the other group.
A day that saw the demolition of a Shia shrine followed by attacks on Sunni mosques will harden that attitude.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington