BAGHDAD - Widespread sectarian violence generated by the recent bombing of the Shia Golden Mosque in Samarra has also brought widespread demonstrations of solidarity between Sunnis and Shias across Iraq.
The revered Al-Askariyya Mosque in Samarra, 135 km northwest of Baghdad, is one of four sacred places for Shias in Iraq.
It was not the Sunnis who attacked the shrine of Imam Al-Hadi, God's peace be upon him, but rather the occupation (forces) and Ba'athists...God damn them. We should not attack Sunni mosques. I have ordered the Al-Mahdi Army to protect both Shia and Sunni shrines.
Muqtada Al-Sadr, arguably the second most influential Shia cleric in Iraq
The mosque was bombed at 6:55am Feb. 22 by men who tied up the guards and planted the explosives. This being the third attack on the Shias in as many days, outrage was immediate, violent and widespread.
Bloody retaliatory attacks took the lives of three Sunni Imams and scores of civilians, while over 50 Sunni mosques were attacked.
Yet the violence led also to demonstrations of solidarity after Shia and Sunni leaders called for calm and restraint.
Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani called for "easing things down and not attacking any Sunni mosques and shrines."
Sistani's office was quick to issue a statement: "We call upon believers to express their protest...through peaceful means. The extent of their sorrow and shock should not drag them into taking actions that serve the enemies who have been working to lead Iraq into sectarian strife."
Muqtada Al-Sadr, arguably the second most influential Shia cleric in Iraq told reporters: "It was not the Sunnis who attacked the shrine of Imam Al-Hadi, God's peace be upon him, but rather the occupation (forces) and Ba'athists...God damn them. We should not attack Sunni mosques. I have ordered the Al-Mahdi Army to protect both Shia and Sunni shrines."
Sadr returned promptly from Lebanon and called on the Iraqi parliament to vote the departure of occupation forces from Iraq.
Sunni religious authorities called for peace and asked people to confront those trying to generate a sectarian war.
Many Arab media outlets blamed the floundering Iraqi government for failing to provide the security needed to prevent the attacks. But thousands of people who joined demonstrations blamed American troops for failing to protect the Iraqi people.
Sunnis were quick to demonstrate solidarity with the Shias in Samarra and to condemn the mosque bombings. Demonstrations of solidarity between Sunnis and Shias followed all over Iraq. Some of the bigger demonstrations were held in Basra, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Kut, and Salah Al-Din.
Much of the Shia anger was directed at U.S. forces. In the primarily Shia city of Kut south of Baghdad, thousands marched through the streets burning U.S. and Israeli flags.
Thousands of Shias marched through Sadr City, the huge Shia slum area of Baghdad, shouting anti-American slogans. Sadr City has almost half the population of Baghdad.
Many large demonstrations were held in Baghdad outside Sadr City.
"Those shrines are very important to all Muslims, not only in Iraq but all over the Islamic world," 40 year-old merchant Ahmed Hassan told IPS at a demonstration in Khadamiyah area of Baghdad Feb. 23. "Every Muslim in Iraq not only criticised and condemned this action, but everyone is against it."
Thousands of Sunnis joined Shia demonstrations in Baghdad despite moves by the Iraqi security forces to seal off Sunni areas.
"This is no more than an Israeli kind of act done by the American troops using some men who were paid," a 54 year-old Shia man told IPS. "It is not the Sunnis who are responsible, because we know the Americans and Israelis want to divide us. The Sunnis would never bomb a Muslim mosque."
A 25-year-old woman among the demonstrators was telling everyone she could that the attack had nothing to do with the Sunni people of Samarra.
"My husband is a Sunni from Samarra who goes to that shrine," said Hashmia Atimim. "Of course we know it was a foreigner who did this horrible act."
Some of the sentiments at the demonstrations found unexpected if partial echoes. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a statement that those who attacked the Golden Mosque in Samarra "have only one motive: to create a violent sedition between the Sunnis and the Shiites in order to derail the Iraqi rising democracy from its path."
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service