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Reprisal: Sadr City Ripped by Sunni Blasts

The sectarian violence continued its crescendo as a series of car bombs ripped through Sadr City markets, killing over 200 and wounding nearly 300. The Baghdad Shi’a slums, home to Iranian-backed Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, saw the deadliest coordinated attack since the conflict began with the 2003 US-led invasion, with three car bombs and mortars decimating civilians in the crowded streets.

The Thursday attack was almost certainly a Sunni reprisal for the kidnappings at a Sunni-run Baghdad university less than two weeks ago. That attack was carried out with the involvement of Shi’a members of Iraqi police and security forces. At least six Shi’a police and security officers in charge of security in the university’s district were arrested for their involvement.

In coordination with the blasts in Sadr City, over one hundred Sunni gunmen stormed the Iraqi Health Ministry building in Baghdad, long known to also be an operations center for al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The attack was repelled by US ground forces and attack helicopters and follows an assassination attempt on Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamily on Monday and the kidnapping of another deputy minister, Ammar Assafar, on Sunday.

On Firday, one day after the Sadr City killings, a bomb in a parked car and a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt killed 22 in Tal Afar in northern Iraq while al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army carried out attacks on Sunni mosques – decried as no-fire zones for US troops pursuing terrorists – some filled with worshippers for Friday prayers. Shi’a attacks on the Sunni were widespread, including an attack on six who were doused with kerosene and burned alive. [Note: See Update below regarding this claim.]

Amid the Shi’a retaliation, Muqtada al-Sadr demanded that the chief Sunni cleric sheik Harith al-Dhari, head of Iraq’s Association of Muslim Scholars, to issue a fatwa denouncing the Sunni attacks on Sadr City.

Iraqi Prime Minister Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, due to meet with President Bush in Jordan next week, issued a televised call for calm. But al-Maliki is increasingly seen to be powerless to affect the growing Sunni-Shi’a sectarian violence. al-Sadr commands six cabinet seats in the Iraqi government along with 30 members of the parliament led by fellow-Shi’a Maliki. While the Sunni protest on suspicions of Maliki’s complicity with al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, he is seen by many as a pragmatic leader who is likely operating under a standing death threat from Sadr’s band of Mahdi Army thugs should he take concrete steps to confront, disarm and disband the militia.

Whether al-Maliki is complicit as the Sunni claim or operating under persistent threat to himself and his family, the net effect is the same. Maliki and the Iraqi government are unable to halt or abate a religiously inspired blood feud that is nearly as old as Islam itself, exacerbated by strategic power plays from Sunni al-Qaeda and the Shi’a Iranian revolutionary theocracy.

Update: The account of six Shi’a being doused with kerosene and burned alive has been effectively called into question by Curt at Flopping Aces with an extensive investigation of the source: ‘Capt. Jamil Hussein’, reported as an Iraqi police spokesman. But his name appears neither familiar to American PAO’s nor on their list of spokesmen for Iraqi security forces. Referenced are several past news articles citing his quotes, including fabrications and exaggerations, all of which incidentally are statements regarding supposed Shi’a attacks on Sunni victims. As well, the number and scope of mosque attacks cited has also been refuted.

As Bruce Kesler of Democracy Project reminds, the issue of using stringers and blindly trusting their sources is a very important problem. He rightly stressed, “We must have transparency in reporting, by media explicitly listing what parts of reports come from stringers, and their qualifications, and journalistic controls in place.” Such poorly vetted information has a serious trickle-down effect, as can be seen by its impact within this posting from a writer normally quite vigilant. Many thanks to Curt for the heavy lifting and to Bruce Kesler, steady and reliable enough to calibrate equipment by.