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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January, 2005, 10:08 GMT
Election drives attacks on Shia
Karbala attack scene
The Karbala blast took place in a crowded bus station
Tensions in ethnically divided Iraq have again been heightened following attacks on Shia targets. The election at the end of January is expected to be dominated by Shia leaders.

On Friday a number of people were killed in a car bomb attack during Eid celebrations at a Shia mosque in Baghdad.

The tactical thinking behind attacks on Shia Muslims by suspected Sunni militants is clear.

The aim is to stir up and strengthen sectarian divisions, by provoking a violent Shia reaction to attacks. The attackers hope to make Iraq ungovernable through a civil war along religious lines.

Deep hatred

Engrained in the Wahhabi Sunni militancy that has emerged in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, of which Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is believed to be the leader, is a deep hatred of Shia Muslims.

In an audio recording released by Zarqawi this week, he denounced Shias for fighting alongside American troops in Iraq, and referred to revered Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani as "Satan".

Less driven by religious hatred are the insurgents believed to be linked to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

They have seen their traditional dominance of Iraqi politics evaporate, and the election can only set this in stone. They therefore see the undermining of the electoral process as in their interest.

Violence and the lack of government control in some mainly Sunni areas, and the threat of attacks on polling stations, have raised fears of serious Sunni disenfranchisement in the 30 January election.

Shias to gain from vote

The response of Shia leaders in Iraq has been to call on their followers not to react to the violence.

Here in Basra they are clearly blaming Sunni Iraqis, not foreign fighters, for the attacks... If that is the case, people say, there will be some kind of Shia reaction, and the calls for calm and no revenge attacks from Shia leaders will not hold
Shehab Ahmad
Journalist in Basra
They have accused Sunni militants of attempting to provoke civil war to prevent next month's elections going ahead.

Of course, Shia leaders have a great deal to gain from the election and by not reacting to attacks.

In a matter of weeks, they can overturn the traditional Sunni dominance of Iraqi politics and take up positions of power legitimised by an electoral process.

There is no real question that Shias are going to dominate the elections. They form 60% of the population and their religious leaders are calling on them to vote.

Despite the recent attacks on Najaf and Karbala, the Shia areas of central and southern Iraq may be quiet enough for electioneering and polling to go ahead, though attacks are expected.

In the Kurdish dominated north of Iraq, the election may also pass off relatively peacefully.


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Footage from the scene of the Najaf bombing




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