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Curfew brings an uneasy quiet

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq – In the hours before dawn, as thousands of police and soldiers locked down almost every block in Baghdad, members of a Shiite Muslim militia took drive-by potshots at two Sunni Arab mosques in the embattled southern district of Dora.Later, in the Tunis neighborhood north of downtown, gunmen tried to storm the main Sunni mosque, but guards from a nearby Shiite mosque opened fire, driving them away.And when a rare daylight curfew took effect – imposed by the Iraqi government after the bombing Wednesday of a gold-domed Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra – it was a day unlike any other in recent memory in the Iraqi capital and three surrounding provinces. Extended curfews had been implemented three times here in the past year, each during nationwide elections. But on those occasions, streets took on the festive atmosphere of a block party, with families strolling hand-in-hand and thousands of children scattered into small-sided soccer games on the asphalt.On Friday, Baghdad – so quiet in some places that the clanging of salesmen beating pipes against drums of gasoline to attract customers could be heard for several blocks – felt like the eye of a gathering storm.With cars banned from the streets and most shops already closed for weekly prayer services, many streets stood starkly empty. In some Baghdad neighborhoods, walking outside was forbidden, and soldiers fired shots in the air to keep people at home. In others, residents made tentative forays into a warm and cloudless afternoon to buy food or visit mosques.While many Iraqis welcomed the curfew, and the brief respite from violence it brought, few said they expected it would stop the bloodshed. Some found the presence of troops in the streets unsettling.”We are afraid that this curfew will give the Interior Ministry and its commandos an excuse to arrest people randomly and kill them,” said Nabil Adnan, 30, a government employee in Samarra. Thousands of pilgrims – Shiite and Sunni alike – who had traveled to Samarra from as far away as the southern city of Basra in a show of solidarity were greeted by security forces who, fearing another attack, surrounded the mosques and turned people away, sparking sporadic protests.Elsewhere, pleas for unity resounded from the loudspeakers of mosques, as religious leaders sought to pull followers back from the brink of sectarian conflict.”Sunnis and Shiites, there is no difference between us, and if we stay together we can push the terrorists out of the country,” said the imam of a mosque in the Baghdad neighborhood of Jadriya, where an overflow crowd spilled into the street outside. “We must come together under the banner of ‘There is no god but God.'”In the central neighborhood of Karrada, a food cart labeled “hot dogs” stood abandoned on a normally bustling main street. Two old men sat on the sidewalk next to several empty pans normally packed with masgoof, a favorite local fish.”We don’t even speak of what’s going on in the country right now, because you have to be too careful about who is Sunni and who is Shiite,” said Aland Jamal, 21, a student at Baghdad Technical University who walked two hours from his home to retrieve a statistics textbook he needed to study for an exam.Down the block, taxi driver Sattar Abdul-Jabbar, 30, washed his blue Hyundai Elantra. Intending to return to his home in Baquba, north of Baghdad, Thursday evening, he had been trapped by the curfew and planned to leave as soon as the roads opened.At the Rawi Sunni mosque in the Khadra neighborhood, west of downtown, at least 16 teen-agers and young men armed with AK-47 rifles took up positions on the roof and at the perimeter of the building to guard the more than 350 worshipers who attended services despite the curfew.The men, who did not give their names, said they had been asked to defend the grounds against “those wearing black shirts,” a reference to the Mahdi army, a Shiite militia blamed by Sunnis for the attacks on dozens of mosques in recent days and for the abduction of worshipers as recently as Friday afternoon.”Things can go in any direction right now,” said Haji Rafa, 50, with a close-cropped gray beard and green dishdasha, or traditional robe. “Sunnis and Shiites have lived together for 1,400 years and I have never seen a time like this.”


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