BAGHDAD – Gunmen attacked a Sunni mosque during Friday prayers and killed at least 64 people, prompting Sunni lawmakers to withdraw from talks on forming a new, more inclusive government capable of confronting the Islamic extremists who have overrun large swaths of Iraq.
It was not immediately clear if the attack was carried out by Shiite militiamen or insurgents of the Islamic State group, who have been advancing into mixed Sunni-Shiite areas in volatile Diyala province and have been known to kill fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to submit to their harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
However, Sunni lawmakers quickly blamed the carnage on powerful Shiite militias out to avenge an earlier bombing, and two major Sunni parliamentary blocs pulled out of talks on forming a new Cabinet. The move creates a major hurdle for prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi as he struggles to reach out to disaffected Sunnis to form a government that can confront the Islamic State extremists.
Both al-Abadi and outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the attack and called for an investigation.
The onslaught on the Musab bin Omair Mosque in the village of Imam Wais began with a suicide bombing near its entrance, followed by a raid by gunmen who stormed the building, opening fire on worshippers, security officials said.
Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen raced to the scene to reinforce security but stumbled on bombs planted by the militants, which allowed the gunmen to flee, according to officials in Imam Wais, 75 miles northeast of Baghdad.
At least 64 people were killed, including four Shiite militiamen, and more than 60 people were wounded, according to medical officials. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
In pointing the finger at Islamic State fighters, village officials said the Sunni extremists have been pressuring two prominent Sunni tribes in the area – the Oal-Waisi and al-Jabour – to join them, but so far they have refused.
However, local Sunni lawmakers in Diyala province blamed Shiite militiamen for what they said was a revenge attack for a bombing earlier Friday.
In that attack, a roadside bomb hit the convoy of a local Shiite militia leader, wounding three of his bodyguards, Sunni lawmaker Raad al-Dahlaki said. He said the militia leader survived, and out for revenge, entered the mosque along with fellow Shiite gunmen and opened fire.