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Head Shia Cleric Calls for End to Iraqi Sectarian Violence

July 20, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Borzou Daragahi, welcome. One of the most important men in Iraq, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called for calm, called for an end to the violence. What has he asked his countrymen?

BORZOU DARAGAHI, Los Angeles Times: I mean, he’s basically — he hasn’t issued a fatwa, which is a religious edict, but he issued a very strong statement condemning the ongoing violence, calling on people not to fall into the trap of sectarian and ethnic conflict and strife.

And he signed the letter with his hand, which is extremely rare. Usually the statements are issued by his office. And he included his personal seal on this letter, so it was a very personal, very rare, very heartfelt appeal to the Iraqi people to stop killing each other.

RAY SUAREZ: Periodically, in the years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sistani has come forward publicly. Does he still have the same kind of ability to affect events on the ground?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I think that’s a really good question. I think a lot of people are saying that he doesn’t have as much influence as he used to have and that, in any case, the people with whom he has influence with, the vast majority of moderate, peace-loving Iraqi Shiites, aren’t really the people who are causing the trouble. It’s the young hotheads who are allied with different factions, who look up to different clergy, who are fueling a lot of the violence.

RAY SUAREZ: What are the kinds of events over the last several days that’s brought Sistani out publicly? Has this been a particularly bloody run of days?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I think it’s been a very, very bloody time at this point in Iraq, starting with a couple of bombings of mosques in one particular neighborhood; followed by a massacre, really, of Sunni Arabs in that neighborhood; basically gunmen sealing off the neighborhood, going house-to-house looking for Sunnis, and taking them out and shooting them, you know; followed a sort of period of bombings and shootings; and then punctuated by a really horrific scene in the town of Mahmoudiya, just south of Baghdad, where a bunch of apparent Sunni gunmen stormed a village with high-caliber weapons and started opening fire on people, running and screaming women and children included, mowing them down in the streets, essentially.

The next morning there was a huge car bombing of a little marketplace where day-laborers were gathered. Apparently, the driver of the suicide vehicle started enticing the people over with the promise of work, saying, “I have day labor for you.” They came over, and he blew up the car, so just really horrific acts of violence.

The morgue is full

RAY SUAREZ: The most recent U.N. report says that about 3,000 civilians have been killed over the past month, roughly 100 a day. Does that sound like a plausible figure to you?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It sounds very plausible. You know, I went to -- I mean, because of security conditions, we're not allowed to go everywhere, you know, but sometimes we get out. And once in the recent days, I went to the main hospital in Baghdad, Yarmuk Hospital, and went to the morgue there.

And I was there, sitting there when they were saying, "We can't take any more bodies. The morgue is full. We've already had too many people who've been shot dead today." The morgue had a capacity of about 100, and they were saying, "We can't take any more. Send them somewhere else."

RAY SUAREZ: Are these killings mainly religiously based?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I think -- I think that's the -- it's complicated. I don't think it's -- it's about power and politics and real estate.

The religion is the dividing line, but as in the case of all conflicts like this, a conflict that many people are now calling a civil war, the conflict is about influence, and prestige, and status, and jobs, and who runs the show.

RAY SUAREZ: In the meanwhile, are people in effect voting with their feet, going to other parts of the country where they can be with people of their own communities and maybe out of the line of fire?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Ray, it's really horrible, and I think the full extent of the problem has not yet been fully documented. But just about everywhere you go and everyone you talk to, there's talk of displacement; people moving out of the country; people moving to another neighborhood; people moving with relatives in the countryside; and, you know, people moving to tribal areas where they feel more at home than mixed parts of the country.

That's happening on a massive scale. The International Organization for Migration is trying to document it. It seems to only document the cases where people show up in camps. I think there's a lot more of that phenomenon that's hidden.

Mideast conflict is felt in Iraq

RAY SUAREZ: And it's not just Baghdad, is it? I mean, it sounds like the violence is heavily concentrated around there, but even formerly quiet places in the country are now involved.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Oh, I think it's centered on Baghdad and the area surrounding Baghdad. That includes Diyala Province, and that includes also the south of Baghdad, specifically Babil Province. And it's centered around there, but that's a lot of people. That's like 10 million people.

And then it also includes Basra, which has its own unfolding sectarian troubles right now. Basra has a 20 percent Sunni minority, and those folks down there are in real trouble. They're being gunned down all of the time.

And then there's the troubles in Kirkuk, which are a different issue altogether, with regard to, you know, tensions between the Sunnis and the Kurds and the Turkmen, but that's an extremely violent area, as well, not to mention the problems in western Iraq, with the insurgency, the anti-U.S. and anti-government insurgency.

RAY SUAREZ: Just to the west of Iraq, we've seen the flare-up of troubles between Lebanon and Israel. Has that conflict made itself felt in Iraqi politics?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: I think that it has been one of the only unifying issues here, in terms of condemnation of what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki himself called Israeli aggression on the part of, you know, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Kurds, even. For example, President Talabani, who is a Kurd, condemning what has happened to Lebanon and laying the blame squarely with Israel. So I think that's one issue that's actually unifying people.

RAY SUAREZ: Borzou Daragahi, thank you for being us.