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Shi'ites, Sunnis in Baghdad Neighborhood Try to Avert Sectarian Violence - 2003-12-12

Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in one Baghdad neighborhood are trying to avert sectarian violence by forming a committee to defuse new tensions in their shared community. They have lived side-by-side for years, but this week's attack on a Sunni mosque has enraged the Sunni residents of the neighborhood.

More than 100 Sunni Muslim men have answered the call to prayer and come to the Ahbab al-Mustafa mosque in Baghdad's Hurriyah neighborhood. The atmosphere is tense, just a few days after someone attacked the mosque with explosives and a rocket-propelled grenade. Local clerics and the U.S. military fear the incident could spark more violence.

The Sunni Muslims at this mosque blame rival Shi'ite factions for attacking their place of worship. They took over a nearby Shi'ite mosque on Wednesday for the funeral ceremony of the three men who were killed in the blast.

The neighborhood's senior Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Dabash, says older, wiser Sunnis are restraining the younger men from taking more drastic action.

He says the young men are boiling mad and are ready for anything.

The hole in the mosque's wall has already been patched with new bricks. But the worshipers are taking no chances. They have sealed off the neighborhood with their own impromptu roadblocks, made with coils of rusty barbed wire and empty oil drums. More than 20 men armed with AK-47s stand guard, perched on top of the mosque and on nearby buildings, their faces covered with red-and-white scarves.

Sheikh Dabash reminds the worshipers of Lebanon, where Shi'ites and Sunnis fought a brutal civil war for 17 years, before they finally made peace. By then, thousands of people had died.

"I am standing in this holy mosque to announce that we are forming a committee from both sides, so a tragedy like this will not happen again," he said. "If we do not make a deal, we will regret what will happen, a sectarian war."

In an interview afterward, he told VOA the two sides are still negotiating over the committee, but he hopes it will become a reality soon.

Less than five streets away, at the Shi'ite mosque that was invaded for the Sunni funeral, there were no Friday prayers. A U.S. tank and half a dozen American soldiers are standing guard outside the mosque, which is also ringed in barbed wire.

Sergeant First Class Richard White says the troops are there around the clock to provide security.

"The only thing we're doing here is basically just making sure this place stays clear," he said. "And it's really nothing in depth to it. Just because of the attack, well I'm not going to say attack, but the people that came in there, we just want to make sure this place is squared away, doesn't get looted. Just making sure they're secure."

But today there are no worshippers. The Shi'ite imam has taken the unusual step of canceling Friday prayers because he said the congregation would look foolish worshipping while being guarded by Americans.

The general in command of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, which controls Baghdad, has been meeting with local clerics all week in an effort to help defuse the tensions between the two sides.

The situation in the Hurriyah neighborhood is just an indication of the sectarian troubles Iraq is facing at the moment. The Shi'ite majority, who make up 60 percent of the population, were often brutally repressed under Saddam Hussein and previous Sunni leaders. There is still deep resentment between the two sides, and many Sunnis believe this is the beginning of a wave of revenge attacks.

But Sheikh Dabash, the local Sunni leader, says the Shi'ites were not the only ones to suffer under Saddam Hussein. He says Sunnis suffered, too. Indeed, the sheikh himself was imprisoned by the old regime. He believes the attack on the Ahbab al-Mustafa mosque was the work of those who would like to see Iraq torn apart by sectarian violence, and both sides must resist the temptation to respond to their provocation.