Friends and relatives of 79 Shiite Muslims killed in a mosque attack carried their coffins through the streets of several Baghdad neighborhoods on Saturday, chanting religious rites and beating their heads and chests.
As they mourned, four more Iraqis were killed in a car bombing near the Shiite mosque in the town of Musayyib, south of Baghdad. All were civilians, said Musayyib’s police chief, Lt. Col. Ahmed Mijwal. It was not immediately clear whether they were worshippers leaving the mosque or passers-by.
In Baghdad, an Iraqi flag covered one of the coffins, a symbol of unity at a time of escalating sectarian strife.
“We are the sons of one country, and one religion,” Jabar al-Maliki, an elderly cleric in white robes, said at one of the funeral processions in Sadr City. “These criminal acts are conducted by corrupt, terrorist groups that ... have no sense of humanity.”
At least 79 people were killed and more than 160 wounded in Friday’s attack, the deadliest in Iraq this year. Suicide bombers, one wearing women’s robes, set off their explosives as worshippers left the Buratha mosque in northern Baghdad after the main weekly religious service.
Relatives continued to search hospitals for their loved ones Saturday. At the Sadr City procession, children held each other and cried, screaming out for their father. Women followed behind the men, who carried the coffins of three victims — each male shop owners between the ages of 28 and 35.
The horrific explosions are likely to stoke tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, making it even harder for them to form a government that represents all Iraqis. The United States sees such a government as crucial to stemming the violence, but negotiations have stalled over Sunni and Kurdish opposition to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite candidate to lead the government. Al-Jaafari has refused to step aside, and his Shiite coalition has been reluctant to reconsider his nomination for fear of splintering the alliance.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the mosque attack appeared to be exploiting these political difficulties, according to his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.
“This underscores the urgent need for political leaders to resolve their differences in the best interests of the nation,” Annan’s spokesman said.
On Saturday police found the body of a man killed by a roadside bomb near a highway in southern Baghdad’s Dora district, the same area where another man was shot and wounded while driving his car. A pistol and wads of American dollars were found in the car, police said.
In neighboring Saydiyah, gunmen shot and wounded a barber as he was leaving his home, police said.
'Dirty sectarian war'
Police said there were two suicide bombings at the mosque, and an Associated Press photographer saw evidence of two blasts — one at the outer wall surrounding the compound and another at the entrance to the mosque building. The blast in the entrance likely killed some worshippers inside.
But Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, the preacher at the mosque and one of the country’s leading politicians, said there were three bombings. One assailant came through the women’s security checkpoint and blew up first, he said.
The preacher, who was not injured, said another raced into the mosque’s courtyard while a third tried to enter his office before they both detonated their explosives.
Al-Sagheer accused Sunni politicians and clerics of waging “a campaign of distortions and lies against the Buratha mosque, claiming that it has Sunni prisoners and mass graves of Sunnis.”
The “world watches silently” as Shiites are targeted in a “dirty sectarian war,” he said.
Mainstream Sunni Arab politicians condemned the bombings, calling on all religious and political leaders to come together in the interest of national unity.
“Bloodshed is forbidden,” Sunni lawmaker Adnan al-Dulaimi told Iraqi television.
The mosque attack occurred as worshippers left Friday prayers, the main weekly religious service. Several hours earlier, the Interior Ministry warned the public to avoid crowds near mosques and markets because of a car bomb threat.
“I heard an explosion after we finished praying,” said Jamal Hussein, a 40-year-old teacher who was one of the wounded worshippers. “Next thing, I found myself in the hospital,” he said from his hospital bed, his left arm wrapped in bandages.
Police Lt. Col. Falah al-Mohammedawi, who gave the casualty figures, said one of the suicide attackers wore a black abaya, the full-length robe worn by devout Muslim women.
He allowed for the possibility the attacker was a man dressed in women’s clothes to conceal explosions.
At the compound’s entrance, the AP photographer saw a leg and most of the head of what appeared to be one of the bombers. The head had long hair and the leg was thin, and the photographer thought it was the remains of a woman.
Women have carried out suicide bombings on Israeli targets and last year on a hotel in Jordan, but only rarely in Iraq.
On Nov. 9, 2005, Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian woman, blew herself up near an American military patrol after entering Iraq from Syria a month earlier. She was the only person killed in the bombing.
The attack on the mosque was the second in as many days against a Shiite religious site. On Thursday, a car bomb exploded about 300 yards from the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, killing 10 people. Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is the most sacred city in Iraq for Shiite Muslims.
Suspicion falls on Sunni extremists
No group claimed responsibility for either attack, although suspicion fell on Sunni extremists responsible for numerous bombings against Shiite civilians. The Buratha mosque is affiliated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic in Iraq, the country’s main Shiite party. The party said the attacks were part of “a war of annihilation” against Shiites.
On March 13, a coordinated car bomb and mortar attack killed at least 58 people in a market in Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite area of Sadr City. A suicide bombing Jan. 5 killed 63 people near a Shiite shrine.
Rising sectarian tensions — worsened by armed, religiously based militias and death squads — have emerged as a significant threat to U.S. efforts to form a stable society in Iraq. Those tensions escalated dramatically after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
That triggered a wave of reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics — many of them believed carried out by Shiite militias — and drove the country to the brink of civil war. Hundreds of Shiites have also been killed in attacks since the shrine bombing.
Also Friday, the U.S. military reported the deaths of four more American service members, including one who died from wounds suffered in Baghdad. Two Marines and a soldier were killed Thursday.