BAGHDAD: Iraqi Shia militiamen opened fire on minority Sunni Muslims in a village mosque yesterday, killing dozens just as Baghdad is trying to build a cross-community government to fight Sunni militants whose rise has alarmed Western powers.
A morgue official in Diyala province north of Baghdad said 70 people had been killed in the sectarian attack staged on the Muslim day of prayer. Ambulances took the bodies 60km to the provincial capital of Baquba, where Iranian-trained Shia militias are powerful and act with impunity.
Attacks on mosques are acutely sensitive and have in the past unleashed a deadly series of revenge killings and counter attacks in Iraq, where violence has returned to the levels of 2006-2007, the peak of a sectarian civil war.
Lawmaker Nahida Al Dayani, who is from Diyala, said about 150 worshippers were at Imam Wais mosque when the militiamen arrived following a roadside bombing which had targeted a security vehicle. “It is a new massacre,” said Dayani, a Sunni originally from the village where the attack happened.
“Sectarian militias entered and opened fire at worshippers. Most mosques have no security,” she told Reuters. “Some of the victims were from one family. Some women who rushed to see the fate of their relatives at the mosque were killed.”
The bloodbath marks a setback for Prime Minister-designate Haider Al Abadi, from the majority Shia community, who is seeking support from Sunnis and ethnic Kurds to take on the Islamic State insurgency that is threatening to tear Iraq apart.
Meanwhile, the parents of American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped while covering the Syrian civil war, called on yesterday for support to free other foreigners still held by Islamic State fighters. “We do pray, we beg the international community to help the remaining hostages,” Diane Foley said on MSNBC television. “We just pray that they will be set free,” she said after a long conversation with Pope Francis, who the Vatican said called the couple on Thursday afternoon to offer his condolences.
President Barack Obama’s decision to authorize air strikes in Iraq for the first time since US troops pulled out in 2011 has helped to slow the militants’ offensive. However, America’s top soldier acknowledged that the internationally recognized frontier between Iraq and Syria, over which the militants have free passage, no longer meant much in the wider conflict.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested Islamic State would remain a danger until it could no longer count on safe havens in Syria.