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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 22:34 GMT
Baghdad's simmering religious tensions

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online correspondent in Baghdad

Death notice for Sheikh Ahmed Khudeir, Walid Khudeir and Taisir
Death notices: ethnic tensions have taken a new turn
Two corpses lie in cold storage at the Baghdad children's hospital - still known locally by its old name, Saddam Hospital.

The bodies have been cleaned up now - bound up in the traditional Islamic fashion and placed in wooden boxes for their funeral on Monday.

A third body - of a teenage boy - has already been taken for burial west of Baghdad.

"We've seen many similar cases in this area," says Saddam hospital doctor Muhammad Dahham.

"But they've been small things, injuries, burning of cars. It has never reached the level of murder before this morning."

Dr Dahham is referring to the simmering inter-sect tensions in the teeming slums of western Baghdad, which in the last week appear to have taken a bloody new turn.

Killers waiting

The two bodies in the freezer belong to Sheikh Ahmed Khudeir and his brother Walid Khudeir, who were killed walking back home in the Washash neighbourhood early on Sunday morning after dawn prayers.

The dead teenager - Taisir Falih - used to act as eyes for the 40-year-old sheikh, who was blind. Brother Walid was also disabled.

Washash market - photo taken at the exact spot where Sunday's murder occurred
The pair were murdered on their way home from the mosque
Local resident Majid Ahmed says he saw the killers at a T-junction near his house as he went before dawn to the Washash mosque to pray.

They were still sitting there, in a small black car, as he returned from the mosque at about 0530.

The sheikh's habit was to remain at the mosque for a few minutes after prayers and proceed slowly home with Taisir along an unpaved, potholed road with the typical open sewer running down the middle as in so many poor Baghdad neighbourhoods.

"About 15 minutes after I got home I heard the gunfire," Mr Ahmed told the BBC. "I was scared and did not look out until the killers had gone and the three bodies were lying on the ground."

Brutal killing

The deaths have shocked the poverty-stricken Washash slum, but the manner of their killing has added to their anguish.

"I have not seen the bodies myself," Dr Dahham told the BBC. "But my colleague said that each one had many bullets in it."

Fifteen Kalashnikov rounds for the sheikh, 13 for his brother and nine for the young boy, according to people in Washash who had gone with the bodies to Saddam hospital.

"The gunmen killed them first and then emptied the magazines into the dead bodies," said one resident.

As far as the mosque faithful are concerned, there is only one explanation for what happened on Sunday morning.

Ahmed Khudeir was a Sunni sheikh at a Sunni mosque and he was killed by members of the local Shia militia, they believe.

The militia they have in mind - the Badr brigades - belongs to a leading Shia political party which has a seat on the US-appointed Governing Council.

Empty office

It was impossible to get the other side of the story in Washash because the local branch of the party in question - the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - had hastily abandoned their offices earlier in the day.

Abdul Hamid Rashid
Abdul Hamid Rashid: "Revenge is for God Almighty alone"
Sunni and Shia alike in Washash have taken that as tantamount to an admission of guilt for the morning's killings - although it may just be common sense to avoid a possible Sunni backlash.

Doubtless Shias have also been killed by Sunnis across Iraq's religious divide - never more so than during Saddam Hussein's rule - but not, according to the medical officials, in this kind of brutal internecine struggle played out in the backstreets of Baghdad.

As for the men of the Washash mosque, they vowed they wouldn't be seeking to avenge their sheikh.

"We are Muslims and so we're against spilling one drop of blood," says Abdul Hamid Rashid. "Revenge is for God Almighty alone."

Growing trend

The trail that led to Washash is worth mentioning, because Sunday morning's killing has gone unreported by the international or even the local media.

In fact it appears to be part of a worrying trend that has also gone unnoticed.

Guards at the Washash mosque
The mosque is now under armed guard
Last week doctors at Yarmouk hospital had told me they had just treated victims of a drive-by shooting with sectarian overtones. At least four people had been shot dead after evening prayers at the Hassanein Mosque in Amriya, and seven injured.

I had not seen a single other report to confirm this incident so I decided to go to the mosque - purportedly a Wahhabi institution in a strongly Sunni area - to check out the story.

In fact, Hassanein official Sheikh Adnan denied the killings had anything to do with the mosque itself, saying the victims were former regime intelligence men who happened to pray there - though they did allege Shia militias were behind the attack.

However, the sheikh told us that Amriya was not the only incident; he told us of the Washash shooting that morning and another shooting in another western Baghdad suburb a few days earlier.

Nightmare scenario

If the talk at Washash was of the certainty of God's revenge - at Hassanein there was a sharp debate on what the response should be.

One hothead was berating the community's inactivity, when the Sunni faithful "sit idly while attacks go unpunished".

But Sheikh Adnan overruled him saying that that path leads to much greater suffering for both Shia and Sunni communities.

However there is little love lost between the sheikh and the Shia, and especially the powerful Sciri organisation.

"When we went to give our condolences for the death of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, they said 'Look, here come the Jewish Wahhabis'," he recalls.

It could be that the May attack on Ayatollah al-Hakim, which killed at least 80 people in the Shia holy city of Najaf and has still not been solved, was the trigger for all this violence.

The question is, are the ingredients in place to spiral in full-scale Sunni-Shia conflict?

This nightmare scenario has already become a realistic possibility in parts of Shia-dominated southern Iraq.

But if the conflict develops further in the mixed suburbs of Baghdad, Washington's plans to put Iraq back on the road to recovery may be heading for their biggest setback yet.

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