A suicide bomber who killed 29 people at Baghdad’s largest Sunni mosque disguised himself as an injured beggar and attended prayers there for nearly a week, a senior religious figure said yesterday.
The attack hit Sunnis praying at a special service on Sunday night during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and appeared calculated to try to re-ignite widespread violence in Iraq just months before US troops are to complete their withdrawal.
The bomber, who pretended to be a beggar, had attended prayers for six straight days at the Um al-Qura mosque in western Baghdad, said Sheik Ahmed Abdul Gafur al-Samarraie, head of an endowment that oversees all Sunni religious sites nationwide.
He said the bomber had a bandaged hand and appeared to pose no threat.
“When his face became familiar to the guards they didn’t search him last night,” al-Samarraie told reporters at the mosque, where blood still stained the marble floors and stairs.
He said guards first became suspicious when they saw the man moving through the crowd trying to get close to al-Samarraie and took him outside. However, the man returned through a back door and blew himself up when he was a few steps away from al-Samarraie.
Under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, Iraq’s Shiite majority was persecuted and repressed. Shiites took power after his ouster, stoking Sunni resentment. A 2006 attack on a Shiite shrine in the Sunni city of Samarra escalated widespread sectarian violence in Iraq and nearly ignited a nationwide civil war.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing, but suicide attacks generally are a hallmark of al-Qaeda, which is dominated by Sunnis. Intelligence officials have speculated that al-Qaeda will do almost anything to spark new sectarian violence, but the group recently had focused on attacking Iraqi security forces and the government to punish their alliance with the US.
Al-Samarraie said he was confident the attack would not rupture the already uneasy peace across Iraq or stoke further violence in the way the 2006 Samarra bombing did.
“We will not turn back or retreat,” he said, adding the best retaliation was “solidarity and unity.”
In a statement early yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al--Maliki called on Iraqis to stand strong against terrorists and “pursue them wherever they are.”