US forces killed 22 people and wounded eight at a mosque in east Baghdad in an incident likely to lead to increased tensions with the Shia community. Police said the US troops had retaliated after coming under fire.
Videotape showed a heap of male bodies with gunshot wounds on the floor of the Imam's living quarters in what was said to be the Al Mustafa mosque. There were 5.56mm shell casings on the floor, which is the type of ammunition used by US soldiers. A weeping man in white Arab robes is shown stepping among the bodies.
Police Lt Hassan said some of the casualties were at the office Dawa, the party of the Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Haidar al-Obaidi, a senior Dawa official, said: "The lives of Iraqis are not cheap. If the American blood is valuable to them, the Iraqi blood is valuable to us."
The US military would neither confirm not deny the incident but the US army in Iraq has been strongly criticised over the past week for killing Iraqi civilians and falsely claiming that they were insurgents or caught in cross fire.
The shooting took place in a neighbourhood dominated by the Mehdi Army militia of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and some of those who died may have belonged to his movement. Salam al-Maliki, an official of the Sadr bloc, said that a hospital to which the wounded had been taken was later surrounded by US troops.
Hazin al-Araji, an aide to Mr Sadr, claimed: "The American forces went into the Mustafa mosque at prayers and killed more than 20 worshippers. They tied them up and shot them."
The killings may mark another step in the deteriorating relations between the US and Iraq's Shia community, 60 per cent of the population. Shia leaders fear that the US is trying to rob them of the fruits of their success in the election on 15 December when the Shia coalition won 130 out of 275 seats. Another US military move likely to be resented was a raid yesterday on a building of the Interior Ministry, controlled by Shias, in the mistaken belief that it was a torture centre. It turned out to contain 17 Sudanese legally detained for breach of residency laws who had not been mistreated.
The US is desperately seeking to pressure Iraqi politicians into forming a national unity government to reverse the country's slide into sectarian civil war. The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, asked the Iraqi leadership to "overcome the strife that threatens to rip apart Iraq". Forty, bodies, some beheaded, were found yesterday in Baghdad and Baquba. The prolonged failure to form a government underlines the deep fissures dividing the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities and make it unlikely that national unity government would be effective. Even before last night's events the Shia coalition resented the campaign by President Jalal Talabani, supported by the US and UK, to get rid of Mr Jaafari as Prime Minister. The US and UK want Sunni politicians, as well as Iyad Allawi, to be members of a new administration.
"The US and UK were shocked that the Shia coalition did so well," said a participant in the negotiations to form a government. "Since then they hoped it would split. But the Shia parties have stuck behind Jaafari ... Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Hawza [Shia religious hierarchy] are for Shia unity and the Iranians want the coalition to stay together."
The present government, formed following the election on 30 January last year, is a Shia-Kurdish alliance. One Kurdish observer said: "For the Kurds it would be suicidal to side with the Sunni and Iyad Allawi because they would alienate 60 per cent of the population."