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Iraqi Sheikh's Murder Sparks Outrage From Sunnis


In Iraq, reconciliation efforts between Sunnis and Shiites have stalled. The new Prime Minister of Iraq has tried to make this a priority for his administration. But after a prominent Sunni sheikh named Qasim Swidan al-Janabi was killed over the weekend, presumably by Shiite militias, there are questions about whether any real reconciliation can go forward. Many Iraqis say even though these militias are helping in the fight against ISIS, they also are committing violence with impunity. To talk about this we're joined by Loveday Morris in Baghdad. She writes for The Washington Post. Welcome to the program.

LOVEDAY MORRIS: Hi, thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: Sure, tell us who this sheikh was. I mean, what does the name Janabi mean to Iraqis?

MORRIS: He's quite a prominent Sunni sheikh from the south of Baghdad, a place called Latfiya. He's known for being a moderate. He's been involved quite a lot in reconciliation efforts. In recent months he's been known for opening up his house and talking to other tribal sheikhs and leading efforts really to try and draw people away from the Islamic State.

MCEVERS: And so how was he killed?

MORRIS: He was coming back from an event in Latifiya to his home in Baghdad when they were stopped at a checkpoint by men in military uniform. It was a convoy of about nine people. They were kidnapped and their bodies were found in a Shia district in the north of Baghdad.

MCEVERS: And his son was with him, right? He was also killed.

MORRIS: Yes, that's right. His son, who'd just returned from his studies in the U.K. where he'd been studying law, was also with him and killed.

MCEVERS: And there have been previous killings at the hands of these Shiite militias. Why is this one important? Why is this one getting the attention?

MORRIS: I think one of the reasons that this has been particularly contentious is where the killing happened. A lot of the other mass killings and atrocities that have been blamed on Shia militias are outside of the capital. This is something that happened in Baghdad. And I think it really drove home that these guys were able to kidnap someone in south of Baghdad, take them right across the city, through multiple checkpoints, without being caught. I think that's one of the reasons it's been really sensitive.

MCEVERS: So what has been the reaction since this killing?

MORRIS: There's been a lot of outrage from the Sunni politicians. Immediately they announced that they'd be boycotting Parliament. And the new prime minister put in a lot of effort to create a unity government and has been trying to reach out to the Sunnis, so this is a bit of a blow for him. There are talks about the Sunnis also boycotting government and pulling out of their Cabinet positions. But that's unclear if that will happen. It's just the latest of a whole number of incidents by the Shia militias.

MCEVERS: Right, this comes after the massacre of 70 Sunni men earlier this month, just days after government forces and Shiite militias had entered the area where they were. What does all this sectarian killing mean for the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who came to power last fall?

MORRIS: Well, obviously it makes things much more difficult as far as his attempts at reaching out to the Sunnis and just pulling the country together at this time. They're saying they're going to investigate the crime and obviously they're having a lot of discussions trying to get the Sunnis to come back to Parliament. They're in a difficult position. They're so reliant, in a lot of ways, on the Shia militias for security now that it's very difficult for them to rein them in. And, you know, a lot of people would argue that they're just completely out of the control of the government.

MCEVERS: U.S. support for Iraq in the form of airstrikes against ISIS and training and equipping the Iraqi army is conditional on the fact that Abadi's government is not a sectarian one. Do you think now that support is in jeopardy?

MORRIS: Essentially, I think not. I think we're too far in now that even if, you know, the Sunnis pulled out of government I don't think you're going to have a situation where the U.S. are going to completely rein back their support. Obviously, they'll be putting all the pressure they can on the Iraqi government to keep the Sunnis in government and to get the Sunnis back to Parliament.

MCEVERS: Loveday Morris reports from Baghdad for the Washington Post. Thank you so much.

MORRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.