AUG. 22, 2014
Dozens Killed at Sunni Mosque in Iraq After Attack on Shiite Leader
By BEN HUBBARD
BAGHDAD -- Dozens of Sunni worshipers were killed during a militant raid on a rural mosque in central Iraq on Friday, an attack that security officials said had followed the attempted assassination of a local Shiite leader.
It was not immediately clear who carried out either attack or whether they were even linked, but the violence still stoked sectarian recriminations and threatened to complicate efforts by Iraq's newly designated prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to form a government to run the country.
Iraq has been struggling with a new wave of violence and political turmoil since extremists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria seized territory in the country's north and west, including its second-largest city, Mosul.
The United States has called the formation of an inclusive government a key step toward dealing with ISIS and suggested that it could lead to greater American aid to the Iraqi government and its armed forces.
In a statement, Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, condemned the attack on "innocent men, women and children."
"This senseless attack underscores the urgent need for Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum to take the necessary steps that will help unify the country against all violent extremist groups," she said.
The Friday attacks affected a group of villages near Hamreen Lake in Diyala Province, 100 miles northeast of Baghdad, where Shiite Kurds live among a majority of Sunni Arabs.
The area's tribes have long had tense relations, with intermittent violence going back years. But as the area has become a front line for government forces fighting ISIS, the Shiite militias that support the Iraqi Army have empowered and armed the local Shiites, residents said.
Security officials said that three roadside bombs exploded Friday, planted in an apparent effort to assassinate the head of the local Shiite tribe, Sheikh Abdel-Samad al-Zarkoushi. Sheikh Zarkoushi survived, but others in his group were killed.
Soon after, two masked gunmen stormed into a mosque in the Sunni village of Beni Weis and fired on worshipers with automatic weapons before escaping on motorcycles, security officials said. Video broadcast on an Iraqi television station showed the apparent aftermath of the attack -- women screaming and lifeless bodies scattered about the mosque's red carpet.
Security officials said at least 43 people were killed, although some reports said the death toll exceeded 60.
Many Sunnis immediately blamed the attack on local Shiite gunmen.
A Sunni member of Parliament from Diyala Province, Nahda al-Dayni, accused Shiite militias of exacting sectarian revenge for the bomb attacks.
"If one Shiite is killed, from the security forces or the militias, they try to kill 10 Sunnis from the same area," she said. Reached by phone, Sheikh Zarkoushi said he had been part of a security patrol when the first bombs detonated, killing four men from his tribe and two Iraqi soldiers. He heard later about the attack on the mosque, he said, but denied that his tribe had been involved.
"We heard that gunmen entered the mosque with machine guns and killed people," he said, adding that he did not know the assailants.
In Baghdad, two Sunni lawmakers, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a departing deputy prime minister, and Salim al-Jubouri, the speaker of Parliament, said their respective blocs were withdrawing from negotiations over the new government until the killers were apprehended.
The dismantling of Shiite militias is a key demand of Sunni leaders. While the groups are fighting alongside Iraqi forces against ISIS, human rights groups say they operate outside the law and have kidnapped and killed Sunni civilians.
Emphasizing the issue's importance for Sunnis, Mr. Mutlaq equated Shiite militias with ISIS and said the United States should target them with airstrikes.
"The enemies of Iraq are ISIS, the militias and oppression," Mr. Mutlaq said. "If these elements are not finished, we cannot build a stable country."
As word of the mosque massacre spread, Iraq's Shiite religious establishment issued a call for help for a Shiite town in central Iraq besieged by ISIS fighters for weeks.
Residents reached by phone in the town, Amerli, 100 miles north of Baghdad, said that ISIS fighters had surrounded it, mined the roads and posted snipers so that no one could leave. They said that food, medicine and ammunition to keep the militants out were dwindling.
Amerli's plight has raised alarm here and abroad because it bears similarities to other areas where ISIS has committed mass killings.
The town is home to members of Iraq's Turkmen ethnic minority; they are Shiite Muslims and ISIS considers them infidels. Last week, ISIS fighters killed scores of men  from the Yazidi religious minority farther west after having besieged their town and demanded that they convert to Islam.
Marzio Babille, Unicef's Iraq representative, said that as many as 15,000 people remained in Amerli, including 5,000 children and a few hundred people wounded in militant attacks.
"If the city is overrun, I am not very optimistic about their fate," Mr. Babille said.
Concern that ISIS would massacre Yazidis as they fled across the rugged Sinjar mountains was one reason President Obama ordered American airstrikes in Iraq earlier this month.
Mr. Babille said he had been in contact with American officials about the situation in Amerli, although there has been no comment on whether the United States is considering airstrikes there.
One Turkmen member of the Iraqi Parliament, Fawzi Akram Tarzi, called on the United States to help Amerli, accusing it of applying "double standards" by coming to the aid of some of Iraq's minorities and not others.
"Why did they hit ISIS in Sinjar but not in Amerli?" Mr. Tarzi said. "We want the international community to deal with all Iraqi citizens in the same way."
Iraq's Shiite religious authorities also raised alarm about the situation in Amerli.
"We call on the concerned parties to work seriously to break the siege on this city and save its people from the danger of the terrorists whose crimes the whole world has seen," said a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, during a televised sermon.
Omar al-Jawoshy contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an employee of The New York Times from Diyala Province, Iraq.