The Sunni bloc in Iraq joined talks to form a new government last week following the selection of Shiite Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi. There was hope that a more inclusive government would emerge, taking away one of Islamic State’s primary recruiting tools; Shiite oppression of Sunnis.
It is not to be. Yesterday, Shiite gunmen burst into a crowded mosque north of Baghdad and slaughtered at least 73 worshipers, and wounded dozens more.
There were reports that authorities prevented help from reaching the stricken mosque. This prompted the Sunni bloc to walk out of talks to form a new government.
Basem al-Samarraei, deputy governor of Diyala province, said the mosque attack in the village of Bani Wais that killed at least 73 people was carried out by members of a Shiite militia after a gathering of Shiites was targeted by roadside bombs.
The casualties at the mosque included the local imam, women and children who were killed as they tried to save relatives from the gunfire, eyewitness Mahmoud al-Shimmary said in a telephone interview.
Hours later, Sunni politicians withdrew from the talks with Shiite Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi, lawmaker Talal al-Zuba’ay said by phone, in a major blow to reconciliation efforts. He said security forces had barred rescue teams attempting to reach the mosque.
“These Shiite militias are massing across the country and killing people based on their identity,” Zuba’ay said. “What is happening will create a volcano that once it explodes, no one will be able to stop.”
The offensive by Islamist State, a former offshoot of al-Qaeda, combined with political instability in Baghdad, has heightened concerns that Iraq may descend into the sectarian warfare that flared after the removal of autocrat Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Today’s strike took place after three roadside bombs targeted a Shiite political gathering 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Musab bin Omair mosque, killing four bodyguards of local official Sadiq al-Zargoushi, Deputy Governor Samarraei said. Shiite militias then attacked the mosque, with four gunmen opening fire, he said.
The mosque, about 120 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, is in an area under government control but close to territory held by Islamic State, the Associated Press reported.
Whether this was an emotional response to the attack on Sunni politicians or a planned attack carried out to stir the religious pot is unknown. The Iraqi government has responded by ordering an investigation:
The speaker of Iraq’s parliament says an investigation is under way into an attack on a Sunni Muslim mosque that killed scores of people and escalated sectarian violence.
Salim al-Jabouri told reporters Saturday in Baghdad an investigative team has been given two days to find out who is responsible for what he called “the vicious crime and massacre.”
Friday’s attacks on a Sunni mosque northeast of Baghdad appeared to undermine the Shi’ite-led central government’s effort to bridge Iraq’s sectarian divides and forge a united front against Islamic State militants. At least 60 people were killed as they attended weekly prayers.
Witnesses and Sunni religious officials blamed members of a hardline Shi’ite militia for the attack, but some government military commanders said they suspect Islamic State militants were responsible for the carnage.
I doubt that any “official” Iraq investigation will satisfy the Sunnis. Mistrust runs too deep. But Sunnis have a stake in a united Iraq and their self-preservation may eventually overcome their anger at the massacre, bringing them back to the table. They don’t want to live under the heel of IS terror any more than other Iraqis. But time is working against the politicians in Baghdad and the longer they delay in creating a new government, the more the threat from IS grows.