BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Shiite politicians raged at the United States and halted negotiations on a new government Monday after a military assault killed at least 16 people in what Iraqis claim was a mosque. Fresh violence erupted in the north, with 40 killed in a suicide bombing.
The firestorm of recrimination over Sunday’s raid in northeast Baghdad will likely make it harder for Shiite politicians to keep a lid on their more angry followers as sectarian violence boils over, with at least 150 dead over the two-day period. A unity government involving Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds is a benchmark for American hopes of starting to withdraw troops this summer.
The U.S. military said in a statement that “no mosques were entered or damaged during this operation.” It said the raid targeted a building used by “insurgents responsible for kidnapping and execution activities.”
The military said the building had been under observation for some time and that gunmen opened fire as Iraqi special operations troops closed in with U.S. forces in a backup role. It said the troops killed 16 insurgents and wounded three “during a house-to-house search,” detained 18 others, found a significant weapons cache and secured the release of an Iraqi hostage.
“In our observation of the place and the activities that were going on, it’s difficult for us to consider this a place of prayer,” said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman. “It was not identified by us as a mosque, though we certainly recognized it as a community gathering center. I think this is frankly a matter of perception.”
Associated Press reporters who visited the scene Monday said the site of the attack clearly was a neighborhood Shiite mosque complex. Television footage showed crumbling walls and disarray in a compound used as a gathering place for prayer. It was filled with religious posters and strung with banners denouncing the attack.
Explaining the raid, Iraqi police said gunmen fired on the joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol from a position in the neighborhood but not from the mosque.
Police and representatives of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who holds great sway among poor Shiites in eastern Baghdad, said all those killed were in the complex for evening prayers and none was a gunmen. Police put the death toll at 17: seven members of al-Sadr’s militia, seven civilians and three Shiite political activists.
Video from Sunday night showed male bodies with gunshot wounds on the floor of what was said by the cameraman to be the imam’s living quarters, attached to mosque itself. The compound, once used by Saddam Hussein’s government, consists of a political party office, the mosque and quarters for the imam.
The video showed 5.56 mm shell casings scattered on the floor. U.S. forces use that caliber ammunition and have provided it to Iraqi special operations troops.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr angrily rejected the U.S. account and demanded a “clear explanation.”
“Entering the Mustafa Shiite mosque and killing worshippers was unjustified and a horrible violation from my point of view,” Jabr said on the Al-Arabiya TV network. “Innocent people inside the mosque offering prayer at sunset were killed.”
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said he called U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and that they decided to form an Iraqi-U.S. committee to investigate.
“I will personally supervise, and we will learn who was responsible. Those who are behind this attack must be brought to the justice and punished,” Talabani said.
The United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shiite bloc in parliament, canceled Monday’s session of negotiations to form a new government because of the raid, said lawmaker Jawad al-Maliki.
“We suspended today’s meetings to discuss the formation of the government because of what happened at the al-Moustafa mosque,” al-Maliki said, adding that the alliance was expected to decide Tuesday when to resume the talks.