BAGHDAD, Iraq -- At least a dozen Shiite worshipers in the capital city and the leading Sunni Arab cleric of southern Iraq were killed yesterday in a new round of sectarian violence, tarnishing the Muslim day of worship despite a highly publicized security plan unveiled this week that included a Friday vehicle ban in the capital meant to halt the targeting of religious sites.
Sheik Yossef Hassan, the most prominent Sunni religious figure of the country's south and prayer leader of Basra's Great Mosque, was assassinated by three gunmen on foot as he drove to the troubled port city's main Sunni house of worship. The killing sparked anger and fear among southern Iraq's minority Sunnis.
"A person who had good protection [like the sheikh] got killed," said Esam Ghanim, a Sunni Arab who lives near Basra. "I wonder what the chances are for people like me."
The gunmen approached Hassan's car in central Basra, pumped four bullets into his chest and wounded his two bodyguards before walking away, the cleric's colleague said.
"We lost one of our religious symbols," said Dawoud Abu Omar, a Sunni resident of Zubair, south of Basra. "His targeting means targeting the whole Sunni sect in the region."
Southern Iraq has fallen under the sway of Shiite militiamen and political parties with ties to Iran, and Sunnis fear they are being targeted with the Shiite-dominated government's apathy if not approval.
"We don't want to accuse anybody, but we really want to ask the government, 'Where is your new security plan?'" said Sheikh Abdul Baset Subaii, a Basra spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni Arab clerical group.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who maintains friendly ties with both Washington and Tehran, acknowledged in an interview on the al-Arabiya satellite television channel last night that some Shiite militias continue receiving support from Iran, but said Iraq has long been a playground for foreign influence.
"There was a time when Iran funded us," said Talabani, once a leader of the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein. "But as the president of the republic of Iraq, I reject that and ask that Iran not interfere in the affairs of Iraq."
In yesterday's most deadly outbreak of sectarian violence, Iraqi authorities said a suicide bomber somehow smuggled explosives using a shoe into the capital's Baratha Mosque, a major Shiite house of worship, killing at least 12 Iraqis and injuring at least 17 more.
The blast, an apparent attempt to kill firebrand Shiite politician and prayer leader Jalaledin Saqir, charred the mosque's main hallway and splattered blood on ornamental turquoise-tiled walls and a nearby staircase.
Panicked worshipers rushed for the mosque's exit before police and soldiers arrived at the scene to restore order.
"I saw body parts, specks of blood, torn pieces of clothing scattered everywhere," said Salam Fadhil, a survivor of the blast, which went off before Saqir had entered the building.
Officials of the mosque gathered the remains of the suicide bomber onto a plastic garbage can lid. The mosque's security chief, who asked that his name not be published, said the suicide bomber might have panicked and set the bomb off early after security officials began to inspect worshippers already in the mosque.
Security at the mosque had been tightened after scores of people were killed and injured in a triple suicide bombing in April. Bombings of mosques and shrines, which U.S. and Iraqi officials say brought the country to the precipice of civil war several weeks ago, had subsided in recent weeks.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, a barrage of mortar rounds landed on houses in a religiously mixed northwestern neighborhood, killing three and injuring seven, police said. Roadside bombs killed one and injured two in southern Baghdad.
In northern Iraq, a soldier and an oil company worker were shot dead in separate incidents in Hawija, a Sunni Arab district southwest of Kikruk, police said.
Borzou Daragahi and Saad Khalaf write for the Los Angeles Times.