Sunni Iraqis targeted in revenge killings

The savage sectarian war in Iraq reached new depths of barbaric violence yesterday with worshippers being dragged out of mosques and burnt alive as a wave of killings swept across the country.

The ones set alight as they pleaded for mercy were Sunnis, victims of a pitiless revenge for the suicide bombings at Sadr City 24 hours earlier which had left 215 people dead and 253 injured in the single deadliest attack since the US-led invasion.

Even as the dead from the massacre were being buried, the grim vow made by Shia fighters of exacting blood for blood was under way. Twenty-two people were killed and 26 injured at Tal Afar, north-west of Baghdad. Nine more people were killed in a mortar attack on a Sunni area in the capital, and rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the Abu Hanifa mosque, one of the holiest Sunni shrines in the country, which had already been damaged in retaliatory action following the Sadr City bombings.

The attack on the mosques and the burnings that followed, took place in plain sight of an Iraqi army post. Yet the soldiers did nothing. That claim came not from Sunni groups, but Captain Jamil Hussein of the Iraqi police, underlining the bitter divisions within this society.

The perpetrators were said to be members of the Mehdi Army, led by the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr whose main powerbase, Sadr City, was blasted apart. As well as killing 18 people and injuring 24 others, four mosques were burnt in the attack at Hurriya, where Sunni and Shia have lived together in comparative amity before the "liberation" by the US and Britain.

Ethnic cleansing of the area had started in the summer when the Mehdi Army had started taking over property and most of the Sunni residents had fled. Capt Hussein said the gunmen had attacked and burnt the mosques and continued burning other buildings until US troops arrived.

Omar al-Hassani, who fled the area, said: "They put kerosene on men and burnt them. They were determined to kill. Nothing would have stopped them."

Another resident, Imad Aldin Hashemi, said: "They attacked the mosques with rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire. The attacks began at midday. I know there were two women and a child who died of smoke inhalation in burning houses." The Shia fighters then moved on to the el-Amel district where they gutted another mosque and killed two guards. Two other Sunni mosques in west Baghdad were also attacked, said the police.

Meanwhile the political process continued to unravel after Sadr supporters in parliament threatened to boycott proceedings if the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proceeded with his planned meeting with President George Bush in Amman next week. American and Iraqi government forces had carried out a raid in Sadr City just hours before the Sunni attack during which six people were killed. Mr Maliki is heavily dependent on the support of the Sadr bloc, which has 30 MPs and six ministers in its ranks.

Qusai Abdul-Wahib, a senior Sadr supporter, said: "We say occupation forces are fully responsible for these acts, and we call on these forces to set a timetable for their withdrawal."

Last night Baghdad International Airport remained closed and the government continued with a 24-hour curfew. But as darkness fell the sound of gunfire reverberated around the capital, and the sky was lit up by burning buildings.

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