Gunmen from a Shiite militia opened fire in a Sunni mosque in a province of Iraq neighboring Baghdad, killing scores of worshipers and ratcheting up sectarian tension exacerbated by an insurgent offensive and political infighting.
The shooting in the Musab bin Omair mosque killed at least 66 people and wounded 37, eyewitness Mahmoud al-Shimmary said by phone. Officials in Diyala province who requested anonymity gave similar death tolls. The casualties included women and children who were killed by militia members as they tried to save relatives from the gunfire, al-Shimmary said he was told by local officials.
The attack comes amid a major offensive by the Sunni militant group Islamic State, a former off-shoot of al-Qaeda. Combined with political instability in Baghdad as a new government forms, the militants’ advance has heightened concerns that Iraq may descend into the sectarian warfare that flared following the removal of autocrat Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Some tribes among Iraq’s Sunni minority have supported the Islamic State in its offensive that began in June with the capture of Mosul, saying they took up arms after being marginalized by pro-Shiite governments in the capital.
Today’s strike on the mosque followed a bombing that killed four Shiite militiamen and wounded three others at a gathering nearby, Iraq’s al-Mada Press said, citing an unnamed police official in Diyala. The Associated Press said the attack happened in Imam Wais village, 120 kilometers (75 miles) northeast of Baghdad, in an area under government control but close to territory held by Islamic State militants.
Sunni national lawmaker Talal al-Zuba’ay said by phone that Iraqi security forces did nothing to stop what he called a “massacre” at the mosque.
Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi is seeking to form a new, more inclusive government after his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki was forced from office amid accusations that his Shiite-dominated administration fueled sectarianism.
Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi is seeking to form a new inclusive government after his predecessor was forced from office amid claims his Shiite-dominated administration fueled sectarianism.
Appointing a new government is a start but it won’t be enough without success in winning major Sunni participation in the administration and the security forces, Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute, said by telephone from Washington.
“The attempt to form a government, to slowly build trust, is a very difficult thing, and incidents like this make that more obvious,” said Salem. “Putting Iraq back together is doable, but it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of political savvy.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel yesterday called the Islamic State an “imminent threat” to the U.S. that may take years to defeat.
The Islamist movement’s beheading of American journalist James Foley, shown in a graphic video released this week, has drawn international condemnation of the radical group that has seized a swath of Syria and Iraq in its quest to create a Sunni caliphate.