Iraq Shiites see reasons for death squad killings

BAGHDAD — While condemning in public the sectarian death squads that gunned down 40 people on Sunday in a Sunni part of Baghdad, some Iraqi Shiite leaders say in private retaliation for Sunni insurgent bomb attacks is understandable.

The bloodiest such violence yet in the capital has rekindled fears of all-out civil war and posed serious questions over Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s ability to keep a promise to curb violence by fellow Shiites.

Shiite leaders, talking privately on Monday, spoke with resignation, saying more bloodshed is inevitable in Iraq’s culture of vendetta and that clerical restraint on Shiites is flagging in the face of repeated Sunni bombings.

Minority Sunnis called the shots for decades in Iraq until the 2003 US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein ended their dominance and empowered majority Shiites. Sunnis have formed the backbone of the bloody insurgency that has raged since then. “It is very, very difficult for us to justify why we are not taking revenge,” said a senior Shiite figure linked to one of the most powerful militia groups, saying that his movement was not carrying out killings but could understand those who were.

“With every car bomb and every attack on a Shiite mosque our people are calling us and accusing us of being cowards,” said the official, who like others interviewed asked not to be identified. No longer is the problem so much containing formal militias, most of them linked to government parties, but stopping ordinary Shiites from picking up some of the millions of guns freely available in Iraq and turning on their neighbours.

Another leading Shiite politician noted the way gunmen came out of the shadows after the bombing in February of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra, blamed on Al Qaeda, and launched a wave of execution-style killings, despite pleas for restraint from revered cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

‘Can’t blame them’

“It is natural now that there are some Shiite fighters who think they are doing what they believe in to defend their families,” said the politician, who is from one of the main parties in Maliki’s national unity coalition. “I personally can’t blame them, since the government cannot protect them.” As part of a plan for national reconciliation, Maliki has vowed to disband militias, mostly armed wings of Shiite Islamist parties formed to fight Saddam’s Sunni-led government. There have been a number of operations, involving US and Iraqi forces, this month against Shiite guerrilla leaders. The targets, however, have mostly been rogue elements, Shiite sources say, who have alienated their own leaders.

Another official in one of the main Shiite political groups said Sunni leaders should shoulder some blame for events like Sunday’s rampage in Baghdad because they had failed to clearly condemn Sunni violence since the fall of Saddam three years ago: “The reaction is completely understandable,” the official said of the Shiite gunmen.

“What do they expect the Shiites to do when they bomb them everyday and Sunni leaders do not even condemn the attacks?” The hardening of sectarian attitudes is audible and visible across Iraq. Many Sunni politicians, in private moments, also have a tendency to find justifications for violence.

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