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Iraq slides towards civil war
New Zealand Herald/Reuters
February 24, 2006

 BAGHDAD - Iraq is edging closer to outright civil war as furious mobs attack Sunni mosques in retaliation for the bombing of one of the country's most revered Shiite shrines.

Forty-seven people were killed in Baghdad alone in the 24 hours after the blasts which destroyed the golden-domed mosque at Samarra.

Gunmen sprayed a Sunni mosque in the city of Baquba, killing one person, in the latest of dozens of incidents that have left religious and political leaders scrambling to halt a descent into all-out civil war. In the same city, a bomb targeting an Iraqi army foot patrol killed 12 people and wounded 21.

Last night, an Interior Ministry source said all leave for police and army personnel had been cancelled and extended curfew hours imposed in Baghdad.

President Jalal Talabani summoned leaders of all sides to a summit in a bid to avert disaster.

In Samarra, three journalists working for Al-Arabiya television were found shot dead after being attacked while filming in the city, scene of the bloodless but highly symbolic bombing of the Golden Mosque.

Hazim al-Naimi, a political scientist at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, said: "For the Shiites ... this is a major assault comparable to an attack on Mecca for all Muslims."

In one apparent reprisal, men in police uniform seized 12 Sunni rebel suspects, including two Egyptians, from a prison in the mainly Shiite city of Basra and killed 11.

In all, at least 90 Sunni mosques were attacked and three Sunni religious leaders killed.

In central Baghdad, a a veiled woman said she saw assailants throw grenades at the Sunni mosque and then set it alight.

United States President George W. Bush, whose diplomats and military commanders are pressing Shiite leaders to accept Sunnis in a national unity Government after they took part in an election in December, urged Iraqis not to rise to the bait of what American and Iraqi officials called an al Qaeda attempt to fuel civil strife.

"Violence will only contribute to what the terrorists sought to achieve," he said as 130,000 US troops stood by to back up Iraq's new security forces.

The United Nations Security Council, rarely able to find a common voice on Iraq since its bitter divisions over the US invasion in 2003 which ousted Saddam Hussein, sounded a note of alarm in calling on Iraqis to rally behind a non-sectarian Government and show restraint and unity.

The Samarra assault was the third attack on Shiites in as many days. A devastating car bomb had killed 22 people in a Shiite district of Baghdad late the previous night. The day before, 12 died when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a bus in the Shiite stronghold of Khadamiyah in west Baghdad.

"We should stand hand in hand to prevent the danger of civil war," warned President Talabani. "We are facing a major conspiracy that is targeting Iraq's unity."

He called for the formation of a national unity Government that "will bring stability to Iraq".

Washington wants stability to help it to extract its forces, but Shiite political leaders renewed sharp criticism of its calls for them to give Sunnis key posts in government, with one party leader accusing the US ambassador of encouraging the bombers by supporting Sunni demands for a share of power.

The Shiites' reclusive and ageing senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made a rare television appearance that underlined the gravity of the crisis. He called in a statement for restraint as protesters outside his office in Najaf chanted: "Rise up Shiites! Take revenge!"

Since US forces toppled Saddam's Sunni-dominated Government, Ayatollah Sistani has helped to hold in check anger many Shiites feel against al Qaeda and Sunni militants.

Militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr patrolled streets in Baghdad and clashed in Basra and elsewhere with Sunnis.

A Sadr aide said: "If the Iraqi Government does not do its job to defend the Iraqi people, we are ready to do so."

Sadr himself also called for national unity.


Original Text