An influential Sunni clerical organization urged Shiite Muslims on Monday to cancel a march toward a destroyed shrine in an Iraqi central city, warning that such a move will further enflame sectarian hatred.
The statement by the Association of Muslim Scholars was in response to a call by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for his followers to march July 5 to Samarra's Askariya shrine, which was bombed for a second time June 13.
Such a march by Shiites in predominantly Sunni area could lead to more sectarian violence between the two Muslim sects. Thousands of Sunnis and Shiites have been killed in sectarian killings in the past two years.
"We want you to be aware that this step in this current situation is not suitable and its risks are clear to everyone," the Sunni association said in the statement. "The goals behind this movement are very dangerous. There are some parties who want to make use of your feelings of love for these shrines to have their ambitions of tearing Iraq's unity and provoking a nonstop sectarian dispute among its people."
"The citizens of Samarra will consider this huge march in their city as an invasion on their areas, and the parts who pushed you might attack you as well, and the blame would be fall on Samarra's people," the statement said.
"We appeal you to forsake this demonstration now for the sake of your country, your unity and Islam," The letter said.
An aide to al-Sadr, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that the cleric is insisting on the march despite efforts by the government to talk him out of it.
The aide said thousands of gunmen will guard the demonstrators, who are expected to come from the predominantly Shiite south and Baghdad's eastern slum of Sadr City.
He said that the government has sent al-Sadr intelligence reports warning that insurgents are planning attacks against the Shiite demonstrators.
July 5 is the Islamic calendar anniversary of the birth of the mother of Imam Hussein, a major Shiite saint.
Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, is an area where al-Qaida is known to be active. The Askariya shrine is revered by Shiites even though the city is mostly Sunni.