Car bomb explodes outside Shia mosque killing 14 at prayer

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The Independent Online

The unrelenting violence in Baghdad continued yesterday, when a car bomb exploded outside a Shia mosque in the south-west of the capital killing at least 14 and injuring dozens during Friday prayers.

In a separate attack, a suicide bomber blew up an ambulance at a Shia wedding party in a village south of Baghdad, killing at least seven people and injuring 16. The bride and groom were among the injured.

Many of the injured, some dressed in honour of the Eid al-Adha Muslim feast, were taken to a nearby hospital's emergency room, which quickly filled with bloodied bodies and the screams of distraught relatives.

Militants from the Sunni minority, as well as religious warriors from abroad, have stepped up violence and kidnappings in the run-up to the 30 January election. Insurgents have threatened to kill eight Chinese hostages unless Beijing bans its nationals from entering Iraq.

Though Iraq's Shia and Kurds generally look forward to the election as a way to assert their political muscle, the country's Sunnis have become a bottomless well of bitterness about Iraq and their place in it.

"Many people thought when the Americans came they would change it into heaven," said Khaled Dulaymi, 40, as he served tea to a foreign guest. "But now people say it would have been better if they had left us with Saddam Hussein. I see all the political parties and they're just empty. All of them are from outside Iraq. None of them has honour. I will not vote."

Sunni leaders deny the community's hostility towards the vote is because they stand to lose after dominating Iraq for decades. On the contrary: "All the uprisings and coups against Saddam came from Sunni areas," says Hathem Mukhlis, leader of the Iraqi National Movement and a native of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

"They were all Iraqis under pressure from Saddam and they revolted. Now they're under pressure from Americans and they're revolting."

The extent of the Sunni antipathy is hard to quantify. Most believe pious Sunnis will be less likely to participate than secular-minded ones, simply because they have fewer options.

The Muslim Scholars' Association, a group of Sunni clerics with Islamic fundamentalist overtones, has called for a boycott of the elections. The Iraqi Islamic Party, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has withdrawn, though its name will remain among the 111 tickets on the ballot.

According to the International Republican Institute, a think-tank with ties to the Republican Party, about half of Iraq's Sunnis say they intend to vote in the polls. But because of security concerns, the survey was not conducted in the most volatile Sunni provinces.

Over the course of seven weeks of interviews throughout Iraq, not one Sunni spoken to by The Independent, other than those in secular political parties such as the Iraqi National Movement, said they would vote.

Many of the various groups making up the insurgency, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qa'ida-linked warriors, adhere to the Wahabi or Salafi branches of Sunni Islam that inspire Osama bin Laden.

But many Sunnis feel they've been unfairly tarred as terrorists. "Under the US tank I have no choices," said Abu Hamra al-Mokhtar, an antiques dealer. "They've equated Sunnis with terrorists. Under Saddam one out of 1,000 Iraqis was a Salafi. Now it's 100 out of 1,000, all because of the Americans."

While candidates have been too terrified to even publicise their names, and election workers too fearful to appear publicly in Sunni parts of the country, resistance has been growing in strenght and audacity. Reports of insurgent checkpoints - a phenomenon common in Fallujah before the November invasion by US forces - have been trickling in from other parts of the country, including Baghdad.