BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s prime minister accused a leading Sunni Muslim clerics’ group on Friday of stoking tension by saying that militias were preparing attacks on Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad.
The Muslim Clerics’ Association, an umbrella grouping of religious leaders of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, said in a statement on Thursday that militias linked to an unnamed political group were planning attacks.
“The statement from the Muslim Clerics’ Association is totally baseless and raises tension, and we hold the Muslim Clerics responsible for any action that results from this,” said a statement from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office.
The clerics’ statement did not identify the militia or say that it was Shi’ite. But the use of the word “militia” and the suggestion of links to government parties is an unmistakable indication to Iraqis that it was accusing Shi’ite groups.
Sectarian tension has been particularly high over the past week, since Maliki rushed through the hanging of former president Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and a video circulated showing him being taunted on the gallows by supporters of the Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Rumours and fears of militia activity were reported by residents on Thursday but there were no reports by Friday of anything out of the ordinary in a city where dozens of bodies turn up every day, apparent victims of death squad kidnappers.
Washington has identified Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia as the greatest threat to security in Iraq. Various other groups in government are linked to militias.
Sectarian attacks and threats have driven tens of thousands of people from their homes in Baghdad and many districts that used to have mixed populations have become more and more divided along sectarian lines.
A string of car bombs at the end of November in Sadr City, a Shi’ite militia stronghold in Baghdad, sparked reprisal attacks on some Sunni neighbourhoods, and rumours have been rife since then of more raids by militias. Both Shi’ite and Sunni Arab districts have also come under frequent mortar attack. “We know from well-informed sources that militias affiliated to a well-known political power are intending to attack many districts in Baghdad,” the Muslim Clerics’ Association said in its statement, posted on its Web site. “We also know that some officials in the current government are well aware of this criminal plan,” it said. It said Sunnis’ patience could run out and they would “respond in an appropriate way that preserves the unity of Iraq”. The Muslim Clerics’ Association is headed by Sheikh Harith al-Dari, who lives outside Iraq. The government has ordered his arrest on suspicion of aiding terrorism.
Sunni Arabs blame the Mehdi Army and other militias for the operations of the death squads and Washington has urged Maliki to crack down on them. But he depends on the support of Sadr’s political movement in parliament and has struggled to act.