In the bloody struggle for power in Iraq, it is the kind of violence between the Shiite majority and minority Sunnis that U.S. officials have long feared. And American troops are being caught in the crossfire. Thursday, seven more U.S. soldiers were killed.
And the Iraqi dead included 47 people, both Sunnis and Shiites, who attended a rally to show cross-sectarian solidarity and were dragged from their vehicles by Iraqi gunmen and shot.
The widespread violence began on Wednesday. Until then, a glittering dome marked one of the most sacred shrines in Shiite Islam, the 1,200-year-old Al-Askariya Mosque.
Now this is all that's left. Witnesses say men dressed in police uniforms stormed the mosque, overpowered guards, and then detonated explosives to blow the shrine apart. In a swell of fury, Shiite masses took to the streets, calling for revenge against the Sunni religious minority.
Roving Shiite militias killed more than 100 Sunnis, including several prominent Sunni religious leaders. Some Shiites, in broad daylight, brazenly fired their weapons at Sunni mosques, while Iraqi Army soldiers, dispatched to stop the violence, stood helpless nearby.
U.S. officials aware of the potential for civil war quickly condemned the attack on the mosque.
Zalmay Khalidzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq said, “This heinous crime is a deliberate attempt to form a sectarian strife in Iraq and the region.”
And the reclusive Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Shiite Islam's leading cleric, made a rare television appearance to plead for restraint. But attacks on the Shiites have been increasing over the past several weeks. And Shiite rage has been building.
Sunnis have vowed to respond to the Shiites and politicians on all sides have aimed at talks aimed at forming an Iraqi government. And now U.S. forces are facing even more danger. Several Muslim clerics in Baghdad have been telling followers that U.S. troops could have prevented the bombing in the mosque, but instead wanted to see a Muslim holy site blown up.
In neighboring Iran, Shiite leaders went even further, blaming the United States for carrying out the attack. These false accusations have a receptive audience among many Iraqis who blame the occupation for their problems.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi security situation has become so unstable that even prominent Arab journalists trying to cover the story are being ambushed and killed. Al-Arabiya correspondent, Atwar Bahjat, one of the most recognizable reporters in the Middle East, was in Samarra today covering the aftermath of the mosque explosion. A Shiite militia group pulled up and took her and her crew away at gunpoint. A short time later, the three journalists were shot, execution style.
The violence and mayhem across Iraq is a huge setback for Iraqis, but also for the Bush administration. It was just a few weeks ago when President Bush described the progress in Iraq as amazing. Now the president and U.S. military leaders are facing the prospect of civil war.
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