Sectarian tensions rise in Iraq

A series of tit-for-tat killings has raised sectarian tension to boiling point in Iraq, where Sunni religious leaders have openly accused Shi’ite militiamen of kidnapping and murdering Sunni Arabs, including clerics.

Meanwhile, top United States generals offered a sober outlook on the Iraq situation, suggesting Washington’s troop commitment could last years because of disappointing progress in building up local security forces and the need to bolster the government’s credibility, The New York Times reported.

The US military has accused the top al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarwaqi, of ordering a spate of suicide bombings this month, which has seen about 500 people killed in insurgent attacks.

And US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick is due in Iraq for talks with Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari amid fears the political process is running into trouble, with an August deadline for drafting a new Constitution now in jeopardy.

The Committee of Muslim Scholars, Iraq’s main Sunni religious authority, on Wednesday accused a Shi’ite militia of killing Sunnis after dozens of bodies turned up in Baghdad. Some of the dead had been tortured.

“It is the Badr Organisation which is responsible for these killings. I take responsibility for what I am saying,” Hareth al-Dhari, spokesperson for the Committee of Muslim Scholars, told a news conference.

The Badr Organisation replaced the officially disbanded militia of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of two leading political parties in the United Iraqi Alliance, which now dominates the government.

The Sunni committee said security forces “formed mostly by militias of certain parties taking part in the government” were responsible for killing 14 Sunnis, including three imams, in western Baghdad recently.

Soldiers and interior ministry commandos “arrested imams and the guardians of some mosques, tortured and killed them, then got rid of their bodies in a garbage dump in the Shaab district” west of the capital, the committee said.

Iraq’s interior minister, a Shi’ite, and defence minister, a Sunni, have denied the accusations, which came three days after at least 46 bodies were found around the country, apparent victims of tit-for-tat killings.

The discoveries raised the spectre of sectarian war between majority Shi’ites, who control the government, and the disaffected minority Sunnis, who were dominant under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Jaafari said the murders are being investigated.

Disappointment with progress

Meanwhile, General John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, told reporters in Washington he is disappointed with progress made in building up Iraqi police units to challenge insurgents effectively and allow US forces to move from a fighting to a more supporting role.

And another senior military official in Baghdad, who declined to be named, expressed concern with dwindling public enthusiasm for the government, adding that, while he has every expectation of its success, the new administration “could still fail”.

Four days after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a surprise visit to Baghdad to express support in the new Shi’ite-led government, Zoellick was to hold talks amid concern over rising sectarian tension and the time taken by Parliament to start drafting a Constitution.

Under rules laid out by the US when it transferred sovereignty back to an Iraqi government in June last year, Parliament is supposed to draft a Constitution by August 15 to be put to a referendum in October.

But Iraqi government spokesperson Leith Kubba indicated earlier this week that “political parties and their representatives in Parliament can decide that the period for drafting a Constitution can be extended”.

US officials had earlier urged the government to grant minorities, including Sunni Arabs, greater representation on the constitutional committee.

In violence on Thursday, insurgents shot dead a former top Iraqi oil official outside his Baghdad home and set off a bomb that killed two police officer in Baquba, north of the capital, security officials said.

In a move likely to increase tension with US forces, radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Muslims to paint US and Israeli flags at the entrance to mosques for worshippers to step on in protest at the alleged desecration of the Qur’an at the US detention camp in Guantánamo.

Several Shi’ite mosques in Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf, where al-Sadr lives, started painting the flags on Thursday, news agency AFP’s correspondents reported.—Sapa-AFP

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