Sunni politicians in Iraq have suspended talks to form a new government, in protest of a mass killing inside a mosque in the northeastern province of Diyala.
In a statement on Saturday, Salim al-Jabouri, speaker of the Iraqi parliament, denounced as “terrorists” the Shia armed group suspected of killing at least 73 people inside a Sunni mosque.
“There are those who want to thwart the political process,” Jabouri, the country’s leading Sunni politician, said. “They are targeting the Iraqi society and its social structures.”
Jabouri and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak are demanding that outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the main Shia parliamentary bloc hand over the perpetrators within 48 hours and compensate the families of victims, the AP news agency reported.
Iraq’s newly appointed prime minister, moderate Shia Haider al-Abadi has also condemned the attack.
“I strongly condemn the killing of civilians and worshippers in Diyala province and I call on the citizens to reject these attempts by the enemies of Iraq to exploit the incident in order to stir up strife between the sons of the same homeland,” he said.
The attack on the Musab bin Omair Mosque in the village of Imam Wais in Diyala province began with a suicide bombing near its entrance during Friday prayers, followed by a raid by gunmen who stormed the building, opening fire on worshippers, security officials said.
Footage of the attack posted later on YouTube appeared to show the dead strewn across the mosque floor, including the body of at least one child.
Renewed sectarian strife
Al Jazeera’s Jane Arraf, reporting from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, said there were worries that the latest attack could spark wider sectarian violence and further delay the formation of a new government, as the country fights the threat of the Islamic State group, which is trying to establish a new state in Iraq and Syria.
“Everyone has been terrified that this could be the incident that could spark another civil war,” our correspondent said. “What we have seen in the past here is that Shia militias and Sunni fighters come in where there is a security vacuum, and that is certainly what we are seeing in Iraq.”
As of Saturday afternoon, political leaders continued a meeting held in an attempt to avert more division.
According to local sources, the attack could have been in retaliation for a roadside bomb attack at a recruitment event organised by the same armed group.
Attacks on mosques have in the past unleashed a deadly series of revenge killings and counter attacks in Iraq, where violence has returned to the levels of 2006-2007, the peak of a sectarian strife.
In July, Shia armed groups executed 15 Sunni Muslims and then hung them from electricity poles in a public square in Baquba, police said.
Diyala police officials told the Reuters news agency they had provided Shia militias with names for hit lists so that suspected members of the Islamic State group could be tracked and executed.
Iraqi security forces killed more than 255 Sunni prisoners in July in apparent retaliation for killings of Shias by the Islamic State group, according to Human Rights Watch. Al Jazeera