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Iraqi Shia Clerics Make Strongest Stand Yet Against Shia Militias

Monday morning a group of armed Sunni militants wearing masks and armed with machine guns attacked a marketplace in the Shia city of Mahmudiya south of Baghdad, reportedly killing 40 and wounding 90 others. According to the Washington Post, the attack was framed by insurgents claiming responsibility as a revenge attack on the Shia for the killings of Sunnis by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

The precise cause of the security failure was not clear; the Post quotes some survivors as claiming that Iraqi soldiers had allowed the attackers through a checkpoint, while also reporting conflicting testimony as to whether Iraqi police or regular army forces had engaged them. MNFI reports that Iraqi troops from the 2nd Battalion, 4th Brigade, 6th Army Division had responded to the explosions and engaged the Sunni militants in an exchange of gunfire. No clear explanation has emerged as to what exactly went wrong.

This followed a mass abduction of about 50 people which targeted Iraq’s national Olympic committee on Saturday. Those abducted include the head of the committee, about 30 athletes and some bodyguards. Reuters reports that the kidnappers were wearing blue camouflaged uniforms and driving official-looking vehicles. On Sunday, the head of Iraq’s North Oil Company was kidnapped, and in a separate attack on a hospital four guards were killed and 13 wounded prisoners were freed (Reuters).

Also on Sunday, the convoy of the Saad al-Din Arkaj, leader of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, was subject to an attempted assassination strike in Kirkuk, the center of the ethnic minority Turkoman population in Iraq. This was the second attempt on Arkaj’s life, and while four of his guards were reported injured, Arkaj himself appeared unfazed. Arkaj defiantly told Al-Rafidayn that this was simply another attempt to “drive our people, native to this land, to leave,” and that it would only “increase our determination” to build the new Iraq. The article notes that there was also a bomb attack at an internet cafe in Kirkuk which seemed to be targeting the Turkoman, killing the owner and wounding others.

Since then, Operation Gaugamela has been launched in Kirkuk by US and Iraqi troops. The cities of Hawija and Riyadh were encircled on a mission “searching for suspected al-Qaeda terrorists.”

Al-Rafidayn reports on a meeting Sunday between First Deputy Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the other Shia religious authorities in Najaf. He was accompanied in his visit to each cleric by Amar al-Hakim, the General Secretary of the Martyrs Foundation for the Promotion of Islam.

Mahdi emerged from the meetings and in a press conference with reporters said that the revered Sistani was personally most burdened by the sectarian violence and was exerting all his efforts to restrain revenge attacks and improve security. Mahdi also spoke regarding a meeting of the Iraqi National Security Council the previous day in which there was unanimous agreement on what needed to be done, including cracking down on the Shia militias, but that the only remaining concern was to ensure that actions taken were through proper constitutional channels. Mahdi was emphatic about the consensus both inside and outside the government on “the unacceptability of armed irregular factions. We are together on the issue of abolishing the militias.” And asked specifically regarding allegations of government officials being involved with attacks on civilians, Mahdi answered that such a person should be punished even more severely than a common citizen should.

These statements may be interpreted as the strongest indication yet of the determination of the senior Shia religious authorities to crack down on the Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Although the deputy prime minister’s own party, SCIRI, has a militia, the Badr Corps, Badr has not been implicated in the commission of atrocities for a significant period of time. All recent killings of Sunni civilians have been attributed to Sadr’s militia. Most allegations against Badr last year involved the use of death squads to engage in vigilante violence against Sunni insurgents rather than the targeting of Sunni civilians. References to officials implicated in terrorism could, of course, also apply to allegations recently made against Sunni leaders’ links to al-Qaeda.

Al-Rafidayn also reported on a meeting between Sistani and a delegation of Baghdad residents, discussing their suffering, in which he compared the patient believer to a living proverb for other believers.

A more troubling reaction to recent violence came from the Sunni side in Baghdad, as 40 Sunni families reportedly abandoned their homes in the Al-Jihad neighborhood and Shaikh Ahmad Taha al-Samra’i, pastor of the Abu Hanifa Mosque, called for the formation of a Sunni “‘Athmi Army” to protect the ‘Athmi neighborhood, and dozens of officers and soldiers in the former Iraqi army gathered at the mosque (Al-Hayat). Similar calls were heard in other Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. Samra’i defended his call in remarks to Al-Hayat, saying that these were merely “self-defense groups for the neighborhoods in which their members themselves live,” and that they were “not outside of the law.”

Al-Hayat also reported that on Sunday the parliament voted to extend the state of emergency for 30 days in all areas of the country except the Kurdish provinces.