Sunni lawmakers quit talks on forming a new Iraqi government after gunmen killed scores of worshipers at a Sunni mosque in a province neighboring Baghdad, sending sectarian tensions soaring.
The discussions in Baghdad sought to build an administration representing Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups after years of Shiite dominance, with a goal of sapping support among some Sunnis for Islamist State extremists who have seized swaths of the country’s north.
While Kurdish and Iraqi forces backed by U.S. airstrikes have regained some territory lost to the jihadists, President Barack Obama has made more extensive U.S. military aid conditional on creation of such an “inclusive” central government in Baghdad.
Basem al-Samarraei, deputy governor of Diyala province, said the mosque attack in the village of Bani Wais that killed at least 73 people was carried out by members of a Shiite militia after a gathering of Shiites was targeted by roadside bombs.
The casualties at the mosque included the local imam, women and children who were killed as they tried to save relatives from the gunfire, eyewitness Mahmoud al-Shimmary said in a telephone interview.
Hours later, Sunni politicians withdrew from the talks with Shiite Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi, lawmaker Talal al-Zuba’ay said by phone, in a major blow to reconciliation efforts. He said security forces had barred rescue teams attempting to reach the mosque.
“These Shiite militias are massing across the country and killing people based on their identity,” Zuba’ay said. “What is happening will create a volcano that once it explodes, no one will be able to stop.”
The offensive by Islamist State, a former offshoot of al-Qaeda, combined with political instability in Baghdad, has heightened concerns that Iraq may descend into the sectarian warfare that flared after the removal of autocrat Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Today’s strike took place after three roadside bombs targeted a Shiite political gathering 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Musab bin Omair mosque, killing four bodyguards of local official Sadiq al-Zargoushi, Deputy Governor Samarraei said. Shiite militias then attacked the mosque, with four gunmen opening fire, he said.
The mosque, about 120 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, is in an area under government control but close to territory held by Islamic State, the Associated Press reported.
Al-Zuba’ay said that Iraqi security forces did nothing to stop what he called a “massacre” at the mosque.
Abadi replaced Nouri al-Maliki, who was forced from office amid accusations that his Shiite-dominated administration fueled sectarianism.
Appointing a new government is a start but it won’t be enough without success in winning major Sunni participation in the administration and the security forces, Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute, said by telephone from Washington.
“The attempt to form a government, to slowly build trust, is a very difficult thing, and incidents like this make that more obvious,” said Salem. “Putting Iraq back together is doable, but it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of political savvy.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel yesterday called the Islamic State an “imminent threat” to the U.S. that may take years to defeat.
The Islamist movement’s beheading of American journalist James Foley, shown in a graphic video released this week, has drawn international condemnation of the radical group that has seized a swath of Syria and Iraq in its quest to create a Sunni caliphate.