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Fears of Iraqi religious war abound

Hundreds of Iraqi Sunnis gather at Baghdad mosque to pay respect to Imam Obeidi gunned down Monday.

By Lorne Cook - BAGHDAD

Fears of a religious war between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities were palpable Friday as hundreds of worshippers, some of them armed, gathered at a Baghdad mosque to pay tribute to a slain cleric.

Dozens of guards, their faces wrapped in headscarves, and a US military team stood tense watch, as worshippers were searched at the entrance to the Findi al-Kubaiysi mosque, its wall scarred with bullet and shrapnel marks.

US officials say Imam Ali Hussein Hassan al-Obedi was gunned down on a nearby street Monday by four men in a brown BMW vehicle. No clear leads have emerged from the investigation so far.

But people who came Friday to the Sunni mosque to pay their respects in this predominantly Shiite quarter of Shorta al-Hamsi spoke of a campaign by foreigners to covertly ignite a civil war between the two communities.

One worshipper was gunned down in his home near the mosque on Wednesday. On Thursday a security guard was killed when a grenade was tossed toward the entrance from a passing car, people here said.

They said another imam in the district was also attacked and injured and that two members of his family were shot dead. On February 21, men assassinated a Sunni cleric from a nearby mosque at his home.

"They want to spark a civil war," said an official from Iraq's US-appointed Governing Council, but he was certain "they" were not Shiites, or even Iraqis.

Sunnis formed the ruling class under former leader Saddam Hussein, while Shiites, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, were oppressed.

As Sunnis fear for their future, Shiites are grappling with their newly found political clout, and the tensions make a perfect target for anyone looking to destabilise Iraq.

The Governing Council official said he believed that those who carried out the bombings on March 2 at Shiite shrines in the holy city of Karbala and Baghdad, attacks that killed more than 170 people, were responsible.

"It is the same people as Karbala. This was not the work of Iraqis, it was people from outside," he said, as the young imam leading the prayers pulled up in a small sedan sandwiched delicately between heavily armed guards.

The cleric, Mohammed al-Garayri, called for calm and patience, and urged the mourners not to seek revenge. "Once we know who carried out this attack, we will punish them," he said.

"We must not be dragged into war; it would only give these people exactly what they are seeking. They will fail," he said.

As cars pulled up loaded with prayer mats so that the hundreds unable to enter the mosque could pray in the street, Ahmed, a 23-year-old arts student, described how people from all communities got on in Shorta al-Hamsi.

"There are very good relations. People from different religions often work at the same place. There is no aggression between them," he said. "I am not angry about what happened, just sad for relations between Muslims."

As he spoke, security guards dotted atop the mosque and throughout the building, in the street outside and on top of nearby buildings, as if the place of worship were a bunker, as shots rang out in the distance and a US tank raced to investigate.

For some Iraqis, Americans too are suspect, as if having a common enemy might somehow unite Iraqi's diverse religious and ethnic communities.

"This was the work of foreign hands, not people from Iraq," said 60-year-old Mohammed al-Awsi in the cool shade of the damaged mosque wall. "Some people came wearing Iraqi clothes, but they had faces like Americans."

As the cleric's coffin was carried away atop a small car surrounded by more than 300 mourners, and a large contingent of heavily armed guards, US troops monitored proceedings closely a short distance behind.


How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?

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