The Iraqi authorities arrested 50 suspects yesterday in connection with the suicide bombs that killed 67 people and injured 175 in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
Claims by the police that some of those arrested had confessed to having links with Iranian and Syrian intelligence agencies will not sound convincing to Shia Iraqis who believe that the bombings were the work of Sunni fundamentalists.
Iraqis are now beginning to ask if they are slipping towards conflict between the country’s Shia and Sunni communities. Walid al-Omar, a businessman from Basra in the Shia-dominated south, said: “The feelings of each community are becoming polarised. They have not quite reached boiling point yet but they might do so in future.”
The election on 30 January is deepening sectarian divisions because the Shia, who make up 60 per cent of the population but were previously denied any significant amount of power, will take part and most Sunnis say they will not.
Shia leaders have appealed for their followers not to engage in revenge attacks and, for the moment, they are being listened to by the well-armed Shia militias.
In Najaf, where an explosion tore into a funeral procession close to the shrine of Imam Ali, killing 54 people and wounding 142, the police chief, Ghalib al-Jazaari, said that those arrested included “elements” linked to Iranian and Syrian intelligence agencies. But there is no reason why those who planned the attack should have anyone in Najaf other than the suicide bomber who died in his own explosion.
Iraqi security forces have had little success in detecting the organisation behind the suicide bombers. Many Shia and Sunni Iraqis believe these bombings were carried out by Salafi or Wahabi Sunni militants who denounce all Shias as infidels. Sunni villages and towns south of Baghdad in the Latifiyah area are notorious for their sectarian bigotry.
The rubble-strewn streets of Najaf were almost empty yesterday apart from the funeral processions of those who died in the bombings on Sunday.
Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, distanced himself yesterday from the claim by his Defence Minister, Hazim al-Shalaan, that Iran and Syria were supporting the insurgents. Mr Shalaan said that they were co-operating with the al-Qa’ida group in Iraq and their leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Mr Allawi said: “The Defence Minister was talking from his own perspective. It does nor represent the government position.”
Though the US and the interim government have frequently claimed that foreign fighters were leading the battle in Fallujah and other Sunni cities, there is no evidence that they are more than a marginal element. Few of the prisoners taken in Fallujah were non-Iraqi.
The election of a 275-member National Assembly on 30 January which is largely Shia and Kurdish may further alienate the Sunni Arabs and lead to more violence. There is likely to be a boycott of the polls in Sunni rural areas. In Baghdad, middle-class Sunnis may vote but in mixed areas people may be too frightened.
Ghassan Atiyyah, a writer and academic, presenting the manifesto of a non-sectarian group called the Iraqi Independence Bloc, said there was no reason why the situation should improve after the election. He said: “We have been told this many times before, such as when the interim government was formed, but things always get worse.”