Protest over Sunni shrine in Baghdad raises spectre of sectarian conflict

Notorious Shiite group believed to be behind unrest over tomb and statue of 8th century Sunni leaders

People gather at Abu Hanifa mosque during a ceremony to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed, in Baghdad's Adhamiya district, Iraq October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily
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A radical Shiite group is believed to be behind calls to demolish the shrine of a revered Sunni cleric in Baghdad which prompted fears of rising sectarian tensions in Iraq.

The calls, backed by protests at the shrine as well as by social media users, have been attributed to Shirazi, led by Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Sadiq Al Husseini Al Shirazi.

The group, which has followers in Iraq, the Gulf states and Britain, is known for opposing prominent Sunni imams and even other Shiite groups. It is believed to have turned its attention to the Abu Hanifa Mosque which was built on the tomb of the Sunni Imam Abu Hanifa Al Numan, who founded the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence.

Along with calls to protest outside the Abu Hanifa Mosque, an audio recording attributed to Mr Al Shirazi emerged in which he blamed Iraq’s problems on the shrine.

“I say, If Iraqis want to get rid of their problems, they have to demolish the tomb of Abu Hanifa and turn it into a park,” he said.

“After that, you will see, all Iraq’s problems will be solved automatically. Iraq will not see any good with the presence of Abu Hanifa's tomb.”

A statue of Abu Jaafar Al Mansur, an Abbasid Caliph who founded Baghdad in the 8th century, has also been targeted with calls for demolition.

The protesters accuse Al Mansur of killing Imam Jaafar Al Sadiq, the sixth of 12 imams revered by Shiites.

“Down the idol of Al Mansur,” was a popular hashtag on Twitter and Facebook over the weekend as a handful of protesters gathered around Al Mansur bust before they were dispersed by the security forces.

MGRFWP Statue of the Abbasid caliph Abu Jaafar Al Mansour Builder and founder of the city of Baghdad, This statue is located  In the Mansour district. Alamy
The statue of Abbasid caliph Abu Jaafar Al Mansur in Baghdad. Alamy

One of the participants held a poster for the statue that read: “May God curse the Abbasid Abu Jaafar Al Mansur”.

Iraqi security forces were deployed around Abu Hanifa Mosque on Saturday in an attempt to prevent the protesters from gathering in the city’s Sunni-majority Al Adhamiyah district. No protesters showed up.

“These calls have no value and will lead to nothing,” Abu Hanifa Mosque Imam Sheik Mustafa Al Bayati told local media.

“Bats are behind such calls on social media from behind their keyboards,” Sheik Al Bayati added. “The government has taken the necessary measures and deployed the security forces.”

Phone calls by The National to the Shirazi office in Iraq went unanswered.

In a show of solidarity amid the demolition calls, a delegation of Shiite clerics and residents of Al Kadhimiya district, across the river from Al Adhamiyah, prayed at Abu Hanifa Mosque on Saturday.

Rifts between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq emerged following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime, bringing Shiites to power for the first time.

Violent sectarian conflict broke out soon afterwards, leading to the bombing of the shrine of a revered Shiite Imam in 2006, which unleashed a bloody civil war even as the country fought a Sunni-led insurgency.

The threat of a return to the years of sectarian violence is a nightmare for the Iraqi government, which has been struggling to maintain security ahead of parliamentary elections in October.