BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 16 - In a gesture calculated to ease tensions with Iraq's dispossessed Sunni Arab minority, the new Shiite majority government announced Monday that it had ordered the army to stop raiding mosques, arresting clerics and "terrifying worshipers."
The order came less than 24 hours after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew here to appeal to Shiite leaders to reach out to Sunni Arabs, in the hope of weakening Sunni support for the insurgency. But it could complicate the battle against the rebels.
American officials say some insurgent groups may be ready to turn toward peace, if they can be convinced that Sunni Arabs can take part effectively in Iraq's nascent democracy, beginning with a full role in drafting the new constitution.
The Shiite leaders sought to give the ban on raids of mosques added impact among Sunnis by having it announced by the defense minister, Sadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab who has been in office less than a week.
Mr. Dulaimi, 51, a sociologist who fled Saddam Hussein's repression in 1990 for England, has been disparaged by Sunni intermediaries who had pressed for cabinet posts for Sunnis with closer links to the period of Sunni minority rule that ended with Mr. Hussein's overthrow.
At a news conference in the Defense Ministry, his first public appearance, Mr. Dulaimi said the order extended to college campuses and Christian churches, and applied to Shiite as well as Sunni religious sites. He said raids had been "terrifying worshipers," adding, "The holy places must not be violated by the security forces, nor religious leaders arrested, and that will not happen anymore."
He said that the security agencies under Mr. Hussein had spread "terror" among Iraqis in the name of protecting Iraq, and that the new government was determined not to do the same by attacking places that Iraqis had the right to consider immune to violence. "A sense of public security cannot be achieved by spreading fear," he said.
The American military command had no immediate comment on the order, which seemed likely to have a significant effect on operations in Sunni Arab areas that had been insurgent strongholds. American policy has been to attack mosques and religious schools only when they are used as firing positions, as occurred frequently, according to American commanders, during the offensive that recaptured Falluja in November.
But Iraqi troops operating under American command have raided scores of mosques in the past 18 months, arresting dozens of clerics and often carrying away large hauls of weapons and ammunition, including bomb-making equipment and antitank rockets. During two uprisings last year led by Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric with a mass following, raids were conducted against Shiite mosques, too, but the main targets have been Sunni.
In another sign that Shiite leaders have recognized the need to defuse tensions with Sunni Arabs, three Shiite leaders issued statements on Monday decrying the worsening sectarian violence, which has included the discovery of at least 50 execution-style slayings in recent days.
The statements came from Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who leads the bloc of religious Shiites who control the new government, and from Mr. Sadr, who dropped out of sight after his second uprising last August and has since turned, at least tentatively, toward politics.
But the most powerful call came from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most revered Shiite cleric, who played a decisive role in assembling the Shiite alliance that won January's elections and whose word is regarded by many Shiites as decisive on political as well as religious issues.
Ayatollah Sistani met Monday at his sanctuary in Najaf with Dr. Jaafari, and gave the prime minister a message emphasizing the need for Shiites and Sunnis to work together on the country's future.
Dr. Jaafari told reporters that Ayatollah Sistani "insisted on the need for brotherhood between Shiites and Sunnis, and the need to include our Sunni brothers in the constitution-drafting process."
But later Monday, in a BBC television interview that was recorded after Ms. Rice's visit, Dr. Jaafari offered a somewhat harder-edged response to her call for a broader dialogue. Emphasizing the efforts he said the Shiite leaders had made to appoint Sunni Arabs to top government posts, and their willingness to open the constitution-drafting to broad Sunni Arab participation, Dr. Jaafari said "every political step we take" had been aimed at depriving the insurgents of popular support among Sunnis.
"Dialogue is offered even to those Iraqis who have taken up arms, and we will try to extend the bridge even to them, whatever their background," he said. "But there are others who came from outside and who don't care about Iraq. How can we deal with people whose idea of a dialogue is setting off car bombs in heavily populated areas, abducting and raping our women and beheading people?
"For us these criminals of whatever background are operating in a terrorist situation which is beyond humanity and the nature of the Iraqi nation. But we believe that the long Iraqi culture of sectarian coexistence and intermingling, and the high awareness of our people, will foil all these attempts to stir up trouble or civil war."
After the euphoria of winning a parliamentary majority in January, the two Iran-backed Shiite religious parties that dominate the government have found, in two weeks in office, that their choices are tightly hemmed in, and not only by the need to placate alienated Sunni Arabs. The other decisive reality is their dependence on the 138,000 American troops here, and Mr. Dulaimi was at pains at his news conference to offer American commanders a commitment that seemed intended to offset any aggravation over the ban on raiding mosques.
Mr. Dulaimi said he had approved a step long sought by the American forces, clearing squatters from military buildings and compounds that were looted and abandoned during the upheaval that accompanied the American-led invasion two years ago, especially around Abu Ghraib, a town near Baghdad that is the site of an American detention center and an insurgent stronghold. Some of these buildings, Mr. Dulaimi said, had become "bases for terrorists and car-bomb makers," and the squatters would be moved. "Henceforth, they will be used by the Iraqi Army, not by terrorists," he said.
Although American forces have operated for a year under a sovereign Iraqi government, the ban announced today was the first time that Iraqi leaders have taken any overt step to curb the ways in which war is fought. The interim government of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, in office for 10 months, was aggressive in pursuit of the war, and unapologetic about raids on mosques, at Falluja and elsewhere, when American commanders said the buildings were insurgent strongholds.
Falluja, six months later, remains a wasteland of toppled minarets and prayer halls punctured by tank shells. Ramadi, another insurgent stronghold, has also been the scene of mosque raids, including one in November witnessed by a reporter for The New York Times in which American troops from the 503rd Infantry Regiment attacked after taking fire from a minaret. They used the minaret to fire on a suspected suicide bomber racing toward the mosque, causing the car to explode. Inside the mosque, the soldiers found Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition magazines hidden in an air duct.
American officers from the First Cavalry Division who accompanied Iraqi national guardsmen to a mosque in the Qaddisiya area of Baghdad in November recounted how they had been greeted by the mosque's senior imam with assurances of good will and of hostility toward the insurgents. When the Americans withdrew and the Iraqis searched cars in the mosque's parking lot, they discovered trunkloads of Kalashnikovs, grenade-launchers, bomb-making equipment and ammunition. The cleric was arrested and sent to Abu Ghraib.
When Mr. Dulaimi was asked how Iraqi and American forces would deal with any use of mosques as insurgent bases, he said raiding them was not the only solution. "There are other ways," he said.