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Attacks threaten to widen Iraqi religious divide

In Baghdad, gunmen open fire at Sunni mosque

BAGHDAD -- Three gunmen hopped out of a pickup truck and opened fire on a Sunni Muslim mosque here yesterday, injuring three people and raising fears, in a nation unnerved by bombings and the assassination of a Shi'ite Muslim cleric, of violence between the two religious sects.

The attack at the Qiba mosque just after dawn prayers threatens to further escalate tensions between Shi'ites and Sunnis, a week after a car bombing in Najaf killed more than 100 people, including Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

Many Shi'ites blame the bombing on an amalgam of possible assassins, including an extremist Sunni sect and Saddam Hussein loyalists from the Ba'ath Party. US-led forces have appealed to Muslim clerics across the country to help calm a dangerous atmosphere that could lead to revenge killings and religious civil war. The two attacks in one week were especially troubling because they occurred at holy sites.

"For a long time we have enjoyed harmony between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis," said Samir Haqmat, standing outside the Qiba mosque in a Shi'ite neighborhood of Baghdad hours after the shooting. "We have prayed with them and they have prayed with us. But there are elements backed by terrorist groups who want to create anarchy and divide us."

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on a visit to Iraq, criticized the US news media for ignoring "the story of success and accomplishment" in Iraq and said the speed of improvements here "dwarfs any other experience I'm aware of," including Germany and Japan after World War II.

Speaking in a marble-walled palace adjacent to Baghdad's international airport, Rumsfeld said the impact of continued attacks against US forces had been overstated and likened them to isolated terrorist violence "in every country in the world."

In Najaf, thousands of Shi'ites converged yesterday on the Imam Ali mosque, site of last week's bombing, to vow vengeance and grieve anew for their leader. "Death to the Ba'athists, death to America," they chanted under the heavy security of militiamen.

In the adjacent town of Kufa, popular radical cleric Muqtader Sadr led his Shi'ite followers in chants against the United States and Israel, which they blamed ultimately for the wave of terrorist bombings in Iraq over the past month. Sadr called on his followers to arm themselves and demanded that US troops leave all of Iraq's holy places.

Despite the inflamed emotions and the many guns, no violence was reported in Najaf or Kufa.

In Baghdad, the mosque shooting was the lone act of bloodshed.

The gunmen struck quickly, jumping out of the pickup truck and spraying automatic weapons fire. About 40 rounds were fired, according to witnesses, and three people standing outside were injured. Before afternoon prayers, armed men from the Sunni neighborhood arrived to guard the mosque, whose compound walls were pocked by bullets.

"The attackers looked like ordinary people, not fanatics," said Ahmed Khalil, a member of the mosque's prayer group.

"Mercenaries did this," said Zaid Haider of the shooting, as he pointed to a banner on the mosque proclaiming that the Sunnis condemned the slaying of Hakim. "These extremists are not true Muslims. They are people paid for by outside groups."

Rumors of attacks on other mosques spread quickly through the city.

One circulating yesterday suggested there was a shooting death at the city's Al-Furdous mosque. When two journalists arrived, Sheik Bassam Hussein and several of his followers looked perplexed.

"Nothing has happened here," the sheik said. "But it is the task of the clerics to speak against such violence."

Armed guards took positions at mosques around the city. At the Bratha mosque, one of the holiest Shi'ite shrines in Baghdad, volunteer guards trained by US forces directed traffic and stood on rooftops. Bodyguards shadowed clerics and imams.

"There are people who have infiltrated Iraq for acts of sabotage," said Mohammed Addulhassan, standing with a Kalashnikov at his side. "People are sneaking in. Attackers want to do harm to Muslims, especially the Shi'ites."

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