BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Relatives and friends of Shiite Muslims killed in a deadly mosque attack buried their dead Saturday, carrying coffins through the streets of several Baghdad neighborhoods, chanting religious rites and beating their heads and chests.
An Iraqi flag covered one of the coffins, a symbol of unity at a time of dramatic sectarian strife. “We are the sons of one country, and one religion,” Jabar al-Maliki, an elderly cleric wearing traditional white robes, said at one of the funeral processions in Sadr City. “These criminal acts are conducted by corrupt, terrorist groups that … have no sense of humanity.”
At least 79 people were killed and more than 160 wounded in the Friday attack, the deadliest in Iraq this year.
Suicide bombers, one dressed in women’s robes, blasted worshippers as they left the Buratha mosque in northern Baghdad after the main weekly religious service.
Relatives continued to search for their loved ones Saturday at hospitals. At the Sadr City procession, children held each other and cried, screaming out “Oh, father!”
The horrific explosions at the Buratha mosque are likely to stoke the already raw tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and come at a time of political stalemate as Iraqi leaders struggle to form a new government. Many see a government representing all Iraqi groups as the only solution to stemming the startling violence.
Shiite leaders condemned the attack, saying it would neither stop their political involvement nor drag them into further sectarian fighting. “We direct our speech to the terrorists, telling them that they will not stop us,” said Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. “Our people will not be drawn into the trap of civil war.”
Political efforts have stalled over Sunni and Kurdish opposition to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite candidate to lead the government. Al-Jaafari has refused to step aside, and his Shiite coalition has been reluctant to reconsider his nomination for fear of splintering the alliance.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the mosque attack appeared to be exploiting these political difficulties, according to his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric. “This underscores the urgent need for political leaders to resolve their differences in the best interests of the nation,” Annan’s spokesman said.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad condemned those who launched the attack, saying the United States will do everything it can to help the Iraqi government track down those responsible.
“The terrorists who seek to murder innocent people who worship at Iraq’s holy sites and religious institutions are the enemies of all faiths and of all humanity,” he said.
Police said there were two suicide bombings at the mosque, and an Associated Press photographer saw evidence of two blasts, one at the outer wall surrounding the compound and another at the entrance to the mosque building. The blast in the entrance likely killed some worshippers inside.
Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, the preacher at the mosque and one of the country’s leading politicians, said there were three bombers, including one who tried to enter his office. He was not injured in the attack.
Mainstream Sunni Arab politicians condemned the bombings, calling on all religious and political leaders to come together in the interest of national unity. “Bloodshed is forbidden,” Sunni lawmaker Adnan al-Dulaimi told Iraqi television.
Security was increased at Sunni mosques in the southern province of Maysan after several threats were received, said Hamid Qassim al-Nuaimi, the region’s Sunni Endowment director. A group calling itself the “Supporters of Righteousness” threatened to blow up all the mosques and preachers inside if they did not close them immediately, al-Nuaimi said.
The mosque attack occurred as worshippers left Friday prayers, the main weekly religious service. Several hours earlier, the Interior Ministry warned the public to avoid crowds near mosques and markets because of a car bomb threat.
Police Lt. Col. Falah al-Mohammedawi, who gave the casualty figures, said one of the suicide attackers wore a black abaya, the full-length robe worn by devout Muslim women. He said police were unsure whether the attacker was a man wearing a woman’s robe to conceal explosives.
At the compound’s entrance, the AP photographer saw a leg and most of the head of what appeared to be one of the bombers. The head had long hair and the leg was thin, and the photographer thought it was the remains of a woman.
Women have carried out suicide bombings on Israeli targets and last year on a hotel in Jordan, but only rarely in Iraq.
On Nov. 9, 2005, Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian woman, blew herself up near an American military patrol after entering Iraq from Syria a month earlier. She was the only person killed in the bombing.
Friday’s attack was the second in as many days against a Shiite religious site. On Thursday, a car bomb exploded about 300 meters from the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, killing 10 people. Najaf, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad, is the most sacred city in Iraq for Shiite Muslims.
No group claimed responsibility for either attack, although suspicion fell on Sunni extremists responsible for numerous bombings against Shiite civilians. The Buratha mosque is affiliated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic in Iraq, the country’s main Shiite party. The party said the attacks were part of “a war of annihilation” against Shiites.
The sectarian war waged on other fronts, with police continuing to discover more corpses, among hundreds of victims of execution-style killings triggered after the Feb. 22 bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Police on Saturday found four headless bodies showing signs of torture that were dumped on a farm about 35 kilometers (20 miles) north of Baghdad.
The body of a man killed by a roadside bomb near a highway in southern Baghdad’s Dora district was also found. In neighboring Saydiyah, gunmen shot and wounded a barber as he was leaving his home, and back in Dora, another man was shot and wounded while driving his car. A pistol and wads of American dollars were found in the car, police said.
On Friday, the U.S. military reported the deaths of four more American service members, including one who died from wounds suffered in Baghdad. Two Marines and a soldier were killed Thursday.