x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

At least 64 killed in attack on Sunni mosque in Iraq

Sunni MPs blame Shiite militia, suspend talks on government formation until attackers are handed over.

Fighters of the Islamic State celebrate in Mosul on June 12, 2014, days after capturing the city. Reuters
Fighters of the Islamic State celebrate in Mosul on June 12, 2014, days after capturing the city. Reuters

BAGHDAD // At least 64 people people were killed when militants attacked a Sunni mosque in a volatile province outside Baghdad during Friday prayers, prompting Sunni MPs to pull out of talks on forming a new Iraqi government.

It was not immediately clear if the attack was carried out by Shiite militiamen or the Islamic State extremist group, which has been advancing into the ethnically and communally mixed Diyala province and has been known to kill fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to submit to its leadership.

Sunni legislators blamed powerful Shiite militias and pulled out of talks on forming a new cabinet, setting up a major challenge for prime minister-designate Haider Al Abadi, a Shiite who is struggling to form an inclusive government that can confront the Islamic State militants.

Two major blocs affiliated with the parliament speaker Salim Al-Jabouri and deputy prime minister Saleh Al Mutlak demanded that the outgoing prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, and the main Shiite parliamentary bloc hand over the perpetrators within 48 hours and compensate the families of victims “if they want the political process and the new government to see the light of day”.

The attack on the Musab bin Omair Mosque in Imam Wais village, about 120 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, began with a suicide bombing near the entrance, after which gunmen poured in and opened fire on the worshippers, according to army and police officers.

Officials in Imam Wais said Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen raced to the scene of the attack to reinforce security but stumbled upon bombs planted by the militants, which allowed the attackers to flee. Four Shiite militiamen were killed and 13 wounded by the blasts.

A total of at least 64 people were killed in the attack and more than 60 wounded.

The officials said Islamic State fighters had been trying to convince two Sunni tribes in the area – the Oal-Waisi and Al-Jabour – to join them, but they had refused.

Iraq has been facing an onslaught by the extremist Islamic State group and allied Sunni militants since early this year. The crisis has worsened since June, when the group seized Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, in the north.

In Diyala, Islamic State fighters have clashed with Kurdish forces guarding disputed territory claimed by the Kurdish regional government in the north. The extremist group pushed Kurdish forces out of the town of Jalawla on August 11 after heavy fighting.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces on Friday launched an offensive to retake Jalawla.

Federal forces backed by air support also clashed with militants in the Saadiyah area south of Jalawla, officers said.

If Friday’s mosque attack proves to have been carried out by Shiite militiamen it would deal a major blow to Mr Al Abadi’s efforts to reach out to the country’s Sunni minority, whose grievances are seen as fuelling the insurgency.

He has until September 10 to submit a list of cabinet members to parliament for approval, but such deadlines have often passed without action because of political wrangling.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric on Friday again called upon national leaders to settle their differences in a “realistic and doable” manner and swiftly form a new government to confront the Sunni insurgency.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani said the next government should be made up of candidates who care about “the country’s future and its citizens” regardless of their ethnic and religious affiliations.

The Sunni offensive led by Islamic State is seen as a threat to Iraq’s unity as the hardline group has targeted the country’s Shiites and minority groups in western and northern areas of the country that it has siezed, forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes.

Its attacks on Christians and Yazidi communities prompted the US president Barack Obama to launch protective airstrikes on August 8 to prevent “genocide” and protect US interests in Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region.

The attacks have since expanded to support Kurdish fighters and Iraqi troops in pushing the extremists from captured territory.

The militants retaliated by beheading a captured American journalists and warning against further US strikes in a video released on Tuesday.

The gruesome video prompted worldwide condemnation and raised support for Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State.

US defence chiefs warned on Thursday of the dangers the group posed and said operations against it may be needed in Syria, where it has laso captured large areas to create what it says is an Islamic caliphate.

“They marry ideology and a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess,” the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said of the “barbaric” militants.

“They are tremendously well funded. This is beyond anything we have seen.”

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said the group “has an apocalyptic end of days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated”.

The militants’ vision of a wider Muslim caliphate could “fundamentally alter the face of the Middle East and create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways”, Gen Dempsey warned.

“Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organisation that resides in Syria? The answer is no,” he said, when asked if the campaign against the group could go beyond Iraq.

He spoke of a “very long contest” that could not be won by US military prowess alone, but only with regional support and that of “the 20 million disenfranchised Sunnis that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad”.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse