Iraqi Sunni mosques attacked in apparent retaliation for Saudi execution
The Interior Ministry in Baghdad confirmed the attacks around 100km south of Baghdad.
BAGHDAD - At least two Sunni Muslim mosques have been attacked in Iraq and two people killed in apparent retaliation for the execution of a senior Shi'ite cleric in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, officials and police said on Monday.
The Interior Ministry in Baghdad confirmed the attacks late Sunday in Hilla, around 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi blamed on "Daesh (Islamic State) and those who are similar to them".
He ordered provincial authorities "to chase the criminal gangs" who attacked the mosques.
Iraq has faced sectarian bloodletting for years, mainly between minority Sunnis and a Shi'ite majority empowered after the US-led invasion in 2003. The battle against Sunni Islamic State militants who control large swathes of the north and west has only exacerbated those tensions.
The spark for Sunday's attacks appears to have been the execution a day earlier of prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, which triggered angry reactions in Shi'ite-ruled Iraq and Iran.
Saudi Arabia cut ties with regional rival Iran on Sunday after protesters attacked the kingdom's embassy in Tehran. Bahrain, the Shi'ite-majority Gulf state ruled by a Sunni family, followed suit on Monday.
The attack on the Ammar bin Yasir mosque in central Hilla destroyed its dome and several walls, according to a Reuters TV cameraman who visited the site. Provincial council member Falah al-Khafaji and a police source said a guard inside the building had been killed.
"We saw smoke rising from the dome of the mosque. We found all the walls destroyed and the furniture inside in shambles," said resident Uday Hassan Ali.
Another mosque in Hilla's northern outskirts, al-Fath al-Mubeen, was also attacked, Khafaji and the police source said.
A local Sunni cleric was killed in a separate incident in Iskandariya, about 40 km south of Baghdad, they added.
"We have leads and security measures will be taken near mosques," said Khafaji, pledging to rebuild the buildings.
Prominent religious and political leaders in Iraq have called on the government to cut ties with Saudi Arabia, which reopened its Baghdad embassy last week after closing it in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
While Abadi and Iraq's foreign ministry have condemned Nimr's execution, they have given no indication of a more severe response.
Demonstrations to protest Nimr's execution are planned on Monday in Baghdad and southern Shi'ite cities, following a call by influential anti-American cleric Moqtada al Sadr.
An early gathering of demonstrators in the capital tried to pass through barbed wire into the fortified Green Zone where the Saudi embassy is located but police repelled them, a Reuters cameraman said.