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Iraqis Take Security Lead in Wake of Mosque Bombing

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2006 – Iraqi security forces are leaning forward to provide security in areas of sectarian strife prompted by this week's terrorist bombing of a prominent Shiite religious shrine, a U.S. military official said here today.

"Iraqis are in the lead; coalition forces are prepared to support as required," DoD spokesman Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable said.

The world-famed Golden Mosque, a Shiite religious shrine located in Samarra, Iraq, was bombed Feb. 22. The mosque's golden dome was blown off in the explosion, which touched off a round of Sunni-Shiite discord across the country.

Some Shiites have accused the Sunnis, who constitute the majority group in Samarra, of complicity in the shrine bombing. At least 100 Iraqis have died in street fighting and other violence in recent days.

Iraqi security forces provided security during the country's constitutional referendum in October and December's nationwide voting held to select a general assembly, Venable said.

Today, Iraqi security forces have secured the area around the damaged mosque and some other areas in Iraq touched by sectarian violence over the bombings. Still, Venable cautioned that Iraqi police and soldiers aren't yet ready to assume security for the entire country.

"But, in the places where they are responsible for the battle space, they've done a very credible job," Venable said of Iraqi soldiers and police. This "is another indicator of the continued forward progress we see in Iraq," he said.

U.S. officials have downplayed the possibility of an Iraqi civil war erupting between Shiites, who compose about 60 percent of the population, and Sunnis, who make up around 35 percent of the populace. Sunnis were favored during the reign of former dictator Saddam Hussein, while Shiites and Kurds were persecuted.

Iraqi government and religious leaders have appealed to the general population not to allow peaceful demonstrations over the bombing to descend into violence. Those entreaties seem to be working, Army Col. Jeffrey J. Snow, a senior U.S. military officer stationed in Baghdad, told Pentagon reporters during a satellite teleconference today.

"It appears as though the people have really listened to the government of Iraq, as well as the religious leadership, in terms of not allowing this to break down into violent acts," said Snow, the commander of the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division.

Snow said his unit works closely with Iraqi military units. There's no apparent split or animosity between the Sunni and Shiite soldiers, the colonel said. "We're not seeing any indications within the ranks of an allegiance on way or another," Snow said. "The allegiance is to the government of Iraq.

"They have conveyed that to their soldiers. Their soldiers are complying," he said.

Snow's report "is completely consistent with what I'm hearing" from other U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation on the ground in Iraq, senior DoD spokesman Bryan Whitman told Pentagon reporters today.

The Iraqi government has urged its citizens to eschew violence, Whitman said, while curfew hours have been lengthened in efforts to dissipate the current strife.

"Everyone has called for calm, and they've extended the curfew and we'll see," Whitman said.

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