Tensions flare in Iraq’s Sunni Anbar over arrests

Filed on September 17, 2011

FALLUJA, Iraq - Hundreds of people took to the streets of towns across Iraq’s Sunni Muslim province of Anbar to protest against the arrests of eight local men suspected in the killing of Shia Muslim pilgrims.

The execution-style killings on Monday and the angry reaction threatened to rekindle sectarian tension in Anbar, Iraq’s Sunni heartland and a former al Qaeda stronghold that was the scene of some of the worst fighting in the war.

The eight suspects were captured in Anbar on Thursday by Shia authorities from neighbouring Kerbala province, an action that infuriated Anbar leaders and residents.

Gunmen attacked two buses carrying Shia pilgrims headed from the city of Kerbala to Syria on Monday, killing 22 men while sparing 15 women, 12 children and two elderly men.

Sectarian violence in 2006-07 killed thousands of people and pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.

“We will cut the hand of whoever reaches (across) our borders,” demonstrators chanted in Ramadi.

Protesters also demonstrated in Falluja, Qaim, Hit and other cities and towns across Anbar, demanding the suspects be returned and warning of possible new sectarian tension.

Anbar provincial officials accused Mohammed al-Moussawi, chairman of the Kerbala Provincial Council, of “kidnapping” the eight suspects. “Who gave him this authority to arrest people from our province? He has no legal right to do that,” Anbar Governor Qassim Mohammed told Reuters. “He came here and we received him as a visitor but he acted like a gangster.”

Moussawi said the suspects were arrested after Kerbala authorities, acting on information from the Iraqi government’s intelligence service, notified the military leadership of Anbar.

“The arrested people were moved directly to Baghdad and they are under investigation now,” he said. “I am shocked at the unjustified escalation by some people in Anbar province.”

The sprawling desert province was the heart of a fierce Sunni armed resistance against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Tribal leaders eventually turned their weapons against al Qaeda, shifting the tide of the war.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki condemned what he called “irresponsible statements that may lead to igniting sedition between Anbar and Kerbala provinces.

“They (the suspects) are in Baghdad under investigation. If anything is proved against them they will get their fair punishment. If they are innocent, they will be released,” he said.

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