Iraqi violence threatens possible backlash from Shiite militias
BAGHDAD, Iraq – A spree of bloodshed that killed nearly 200 people in two days, including 11 U.S. troops, threatened to provoke a backlash from Shiite militias. Iraq’s largest religious group rallied thousands Friday against what it claimed was American backing for some Sunni Arab politicians they say have supported insurgents.Military officials announced the deaths of six more U.S. troops in the recent violence that has swept Iraq, bringing to 11 the number of Americans killed on the same day.In Baghdad’s Sadr City slum and in its northern Kazimiyah suburb, thousands of angry Shiites rallied to condemn twin suicide attacks Thursday that killed at least 136 people, including the U.S. troops.The protesters also denounced what they claimed was American backing for Sunni Arab politicians who have supported insurgent groups and are now protesting that last month’s elections were tainted by fraud.Final results from the Dec. 15 elections could be released next week and they are expected to show the religious Shiite United Iraqi Alliance with a strong lead. The Shiites will, however, need to form a coalition government with support from Kurdish and Sunni Arab political groups.The rallies and threats by the Iraq’s largest Shiite religious party to react with force if the militant attacks continue have renewed fears that paramilitary militias – now thought to make up part of some elite police units- would take to the streets and carry out reprisals.Sunni Arabs have complained that often brutal methods used by Interior Ministry forces have already pushed Iraq to the brink of sectarian war.In Sadr City, more than 5,000 demonstrators chanted slogans in favor of the Interior Ministry and against U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and moderate Sunni Arab leaders. But they reserved most of their ire for hard-liners such as Saleh al-Mutlaq, the outspoken head of the Sunni Arab National Dialogue Front.”We’re going to crush Saleh al-Mutlaq with our slippers,” they chanted, many armed with automatic weapons. “No, no to Zalmay. No, no to terrorism.” It is an insult in Arab culture to touch someone with shoes, which are considered unclean.Al-Mutlaq denounced what he called “irresponsible statements” and condemned terrorist attacks.”No government post is worth a single drop of Iraqi blood,” he told The Associated Press. “Our decision to join the political process means that we reject terrorism.”The demonstration was organized after Friday prayers by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq – one of two religious parties that makes up the governing Alliance.SCIRI and Badr Brigade Secretary-General Hadi al-Amiri have both blamed hardline Sunni groups of inciting the violence, and said the Defense and Interior ministries – both dominated by Shiites – were being restrained by the U.S-led coalition and had to be unleashed.He told the pan-Arab Al-Arabyia television that the government told the U.S. “that they should not give any cover to terrorism.”Al-Amiri said a committee formed to deal with the issue had visited Khalilzad. There was no comment from the U.S. Embassy.The Badr Brigade is SCIRI’s military wing. The party claims the brigade is no longer a militia but performs social and political functions. Militias around Iraq number in the thousands. They include the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which fought U.S. forces in 2004.Robert Ford, the U.S. Embassy’s political councilor, said a government that included Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups was key.”I don’t think the Shiite leadership wants to slip into broader civil strife and neither does the Sunni Arab leadership,” Ford told CNN.The recent attacks, he contended, were a sign that the political process was drawing Sunni Arab groups into politics and away from insurgency – which has angered radical militants.”They know that the Sunni Arab groups that once supported them are moving away from them, and that is why they are stirring things up again,” Ford said.Western experts said more violence was inevitable in coming weeks.”I can’t imagine that we are going to get to a constituted government before more violence, more bluffing, more slamming of doors. This is for all the marbles, and people are going to play a tough game,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.Moderate Shiite leaders, including Iraq’s most prominent cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for cooperation.”Sunnis and Shiites are brothers under one sky,” Sheik Ali Al-Fatlawi, an al-Sistani representative, said in a sermon at the Imam Hussein shrine, in the Shiite holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad. “We are demanding that politicians give up their selfishness and take care of their people.”A Thursday suicide blast near the shrine killed 63 people and wounded 120. That day’s other suicide attack took place in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and killed 58.A U.S. Marine and soldier died in the Ramadi attack, in which the bomber who infiltrated a line of police recruits. Two soldiers were also killed near Baghdad when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Two U.S. Marines were killed by separate small arms attacks while conducting combat operations in Fallujah.The military had previously announced the deaths of five soldiers hit by a roadside bomb south of Karbala.On Wednesday, 53 people died in attacks, including 32 killed by a suicide bomber at a Shiite funeral.Separately, the wife of Norman Kember, a British hostage held in Iraq since Nov. 26, pleaded for her husband’s life in a videotape broadcast Friday on Al-Jazeera satellite network.Pat Kember described her husband as “a peaceful man who went to Iraq with his companions on a charity mission.”Norman Kember, 74, was kidnapped along with three other Western peace activists – two Canadians and an American, Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va.—Associated Press reporters Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Jason Straziuso in Baghdad contributed to this report.