Iraqi govt orders daytime curfew as civil war threatens

Iraqi police and soldiers fanned out today to enforce an extraordinary daytime curfew in Baghdad and three provinces in a bid to halt the wave of sectarian violence that has killed about 120 people since the bombing of one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines.

Security forces blocked major roads and surrounded Baghdad’s two main Sunni mosques as streets throughout the city of nearly seven million were virtually deserted. The nation stood on the brink of civil war and the American strategy in Iraq faced its gravest test since the 2003 invasion.

There was little sign of the curfew in the teaming Shiite slum, Sadr City, where armed militiamen from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army have been out in force since the Samarra shrine was attacked on Wednesday.

Iraq police found six bodies handcuffed and shot near a car park in the area, the Interior Ministry said.

South of the capital, in the religiously mixed area known as the “Triangle of Death,” gunmen burst into a Shiite home in Latifiyah, separated men from women, and killed five of the males, police Capt. Ibrahim Abdullah said.

Late yesterday, Iraqi state television announced an extension of the night-time curfew until 4 pm local time today in Baghdad and the nearby flashpoint provinces of Diyala, Babil and Salaheddin.

The curfew will prevent people from attending the week’s most important Muslim prayer service, which officials feared could be both a target for attacks and a venue for stirring sectarian feelings.

Such sweeping daytime restrictions indicated the depth of fear within the government that the crisis could touch off a Sunni-Shiite civil war.

“This is the first time that I have heard politicians say they are worried about the outbreak of civil war,” said Kurdish elder statesman Mahmoud Othman.

The fury unleashed by the destruction of the famed golden dome of the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra threatens to derail talks on a new government drawing in Iraq’s main ethnic and religious blocs, which US officials consider key to curbing the Sunni Arab-driven insurgency.

The biggest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament yesterday announced it was pulling out of the negotiations until the Shiite-dominated national leadership apologised for damage to Sunni mosques during reprisal attacks.

If the Sunnis don’t reverse their stand, the US strategy of establishing an inclusive government as a major step toward disengagement from Iraq will collapse.

Shiite and Sunni leaders appealed for calm, and the number of violent incidents appeared to decline after the government extended the curfew. Still, religious tensions were high.

President George Bush said he appreciated the appeals for calm, and called the shrine bombing “an evil act” aimed at creating strife.

A Western official said discussions were under way to rebuild the shrine as quickly as possible because the shattered structure would serve as a “lasting provocation” until it was reconstructed. Italy announced it was offering to rebuild the dome to help battle “fanaticism”.

Despite strident comments from various Iraqi leaders, US officials said they believed mainstream politicians understood the grave danger facing the country and would try to prevent civil war.

“We’re not seeing civil war igniting in Iraq,” Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for the US command, told reporters.

Among the victims was Atwar Bahjat, a widely known Sunni correspondent for the Arab satellite television station Al-Arabiya.

Gunmen in a pickup truck shouting “We want the correspondent!” killed Bahjat along with her cameraman and engineer on Wednesday while they were interviewing Iraqis about the bombing of the shrine in her hometown of Samarra.

A Shiite cleric was shot dead last night in Tuz Khormato, a mostly Kurdish city 130 miles north of Baghdad, and another Sunni preacher was killed in the mostly Shiite city of Hillah, 60 miles south of the capital.

Two Sunni mosques were burned yesterday in Baghdad and another in Mussayib to the south, police said. A Sunni was killed when gunmen fired on a mosque in Baqouba, 35 miles north-east of Baghdad.

Dozens of bodies were found yesterday dumped at sites in Baghdad and the Shiite heartland in southern Iraq, many of them with their hands bound and shot in the head. Most were believed to have been killed on Wednesday night.

Although the violence appeared to be waning yesterday, the brutality did not.

The bodies of 47 civilians, mostly men aged between 20 and 50, were found early yesterday in a ditch near Baqouba. Police said the victims – both Sunnis and Shiites – had apparently been stopped by gunmen, and shot.

Fighting erupted in Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, between Sunni gunmen and militiamen loyal to al-Sadr who were guarding a mosque. Two civilians were killed and five militiamen were wounded, said police Capt. Rashid al-Samaraie.

Workers at two US-funded water treatment projects in Baghdad were told to stay home yesterday to avoid trouble. American officials also ordered a lockdown in some locations within the Green Zone, home of US and Iraqi government offices, after two or three mortar shells exploded, causing no casualties.

Eight Iraqi soldiers and eight civilians were killed when a bomb hidden in a soup vendor’s cart detonated in Baqouba, police said. At least 20 people were wounded in the blast. In Julula, 75 miles northeast of Baghdad, a parked car exploded and killed three civilians and injured three others.

Following the sectarian attacks, Shiite and Sunni leaders blamed each other for the violence, with each side portraying itself as the victim.

The Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars said at least 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked, 10 imams killed and 15 abducted since the shrine attack. The Interior Ministry said it could only confirm figures for Baghdad, where it had reports of 19 mosques attacked, one cleric killed and one abducted.

Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Sunni association, blamed the violence on the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and other Shiite religious leaders who called for demonstrations against the shrine attack.

Al-Sadr, the Shiite radical, told Al-Jazeera television from Iran that Sunnis should join Shiites in pledging not to kill fellow Muslims to distance themselves from “takfiris” – Sunni extremists who target Shiites.

Al-Kubaisi said US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad enflamed the situation when he warned that the United States would not continue to support institutions run by sectarian groups with links to armed militias. Shiites control the Interior Ministry, which Sunnis claim operates death squads targeting them.

Shiite party leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim said Khalilzad bore some responsibility for the Samarra attack because of this warning, and al-Kubaisi said “without doubt,” the ambassador’s comments “mobilised all the Shiites” and “made them ready to go down to the street at any moment”.

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