BAGHDAD — Iraqi Sunni religious leaders said Saturday that they have decided to close down the sect's mosques in Baghdad indefinitely to protest attacks targeting clerics and worshippers, highlighting the country's deepening sectarian rift.
Sheik Mustafa al-Bayati, member of the Iraqi Doctrine Council where senior Sunni scholars sit to issue religious edicts, says the decision was taken on Thursday and came into effect on Saturday.
Many mosques appeared to comply with the closure. At Baghdad's Sunni northern district of Azamiya, a banner at the closed gate of the hallowed Abu Hanifa mosque read: "The mosque is closed until further notice because of the targeting of imams, preachers and worshippers."
Sunnis have closed mosques previously as a protest tactic, in the southern province of Basra in September and in the northeastern province of Diyala early this month. In both cases, mosques reopened later after local authorities and tribal leaders promised to offer protection.
Sunnis, who dominated the government of Iraq for most of its modern history, believe that the majority-Shiite leaders who came into the ascendancy after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have treated them like second-class citizens.
Sunni discontent has mounted after a bloody April raid by security forces on a protest camp in country's north. Violence has since spiked, claiming at least 5,500 lives according to the United Nations figures, although overall death tolls are still lower than at the height of the conflict in 2004-2008.
The bloodiest attacks, including waves of coordinated car bombs claimed by al-Qaida's local branch, have targeted mainly Shiites. But Sunnis have also been killed in apparent reprisals.
On Friday, bombs targeted two Sunni mosques in Baghdad, killing four. And last week, gunmen killed a cleric as he was leaving a mosque in western Baghdad, police said.
The mosque closures were "prompted by the systematic targeting of and injustice against Sunni clerics, mosques and worshippers," al-Bayati told The Associated Press. "Today, it is not forbidden to shed Sunni blood ... For 11 months we have been saying peacefully that we are facing injustice but the government closes its ears," he said.
He didn't accuse any group of being behind the attacks, but said "the weakness of the security forces is exploited by (Shiite) militias."