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Iraq starts to spiral out of control in a day of vengeance and hatred
Times Online
From Anthony Loyd in Baghdad
February 24, 2006

IRAQ'S political leadership was engaged in a desperate attempt to prevent the country from slipping into civil war last night as Shias continued their revenge attacks after Wednesday's bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

Forty-seven men were dragged from their cars as they returned from a demonstration against the bombing. They were murdered and dumped in a ditch just south of Baghdad by unidentified gunmen at an improvised checkpoint. The victims, found near the village of Nahrawan, are believed to be a mix of Sunnis and Shia who were killed over several hours as their vehicles were stopped for the apparent security check.

They joined the toll of dead, mainly Sunnis, killed around the capital in just over 24 hours. In Basra at least 25 people were reportedly killed, including 11 inmates who were dragged from a prison.

The hardline Sunni Clerical Association of Muslim Scholars claimed that 168 mosques had been attacked, 10 imams killed and 15 abducted, although the figures could not be verified.

All police and army leave has been cancelled, the night-time curfew extended and shops and businesses closed down as part of three days of national mourning. Baghdad and three surrounding provinces will be under curfew all day today.

"The fire of sedition, when it breaks out, can burn everything in its path and spare no one," Jalal Talabani, Iraq's President, declared after an emergency meeting of parliamentary and government leaders to discuss the crisis. "No one will be safe."

Sunni leaders announced that they were suspending their participation in talks with Shia leaders on forming a new Iraqi government of national unity. They were incensed by attacks on Sunni mosques and communities by Shia death squads that have been operating in some areas with the connivance of Iraqi military units.

The Iraqi Accordance Front, which won most of the minority Sunni vote in December's parliamentary election, demanded an apology from the ruling Shias. "We are suspending our participation in negotiations on the government with the Shia Alliance," Tareq al-Hashemi, a top Sunni official, told reporters at a news conference at which he accused Shia leaders of fomenting the violence.

In another ominous development, Iraq's leading Sunni clerics' organisation publicly accused Shia clerics of adding to sectarian tension. They appeared to include Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's supreme Shia spiritual leader who has always restrained his followers from acts of vengeance but called for protests after Wednesday's bombing.

Western leaders appealed for calm. President Bush said: "The destruction of a holy site is a political act intending to create strife." Tony Blair condemned the bombing as "an act of desperation as well as an act of desecration". But the outlook for Iraq looked grim last night, with hopes of forming a government of national unity receding, and the impartiality of the newly-trained security forces being tested to the limit.

"We are waiting for our clerics' orders," said one black-clad members of the al-Mahdi army, which is loyal to the fiery Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "We're asking for permission for a jihad because an eye is for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and this is enough. Our patience is finished."

The killings in Baghdad appeared to ease late yesterday as Iraqi soldiers secured the city with hundreds of checkpoints, but the army's failure to halt the violence over the previous 24 hours raised serious questions about British and US plans to start withdrawing troops from Iraq this year.

Outside Baghdad, the cycle of insurgent violence continued unabated. A bomb blasted an army foot patrol in the town of Baquba, killing 16 people, and 7 US soldiers died in 2 bombings north of the capital. Last night, Baghdad's fearful residents awaited with apprehension before today's Friday prayers, the week's greatest potential flashpoint as millions gather to heed the call of their religious leaders.

"We are very, very afraid of civil war," said Qusay Karim Hassan, a Sunni imam from Dora in southern Baghdad whose mosque was attacked by Shia gunmen. "We fear that the Americans will simply stand by and watch as we slaughter one another. For blood only begets blood. We have no idea what will become of us."

# At least 140 killed yesterday
# In worst incident 47 killed by gunmen at roadblock. Bodies discovered in Nahrawan, on outskirts of Baghdad
# At least 53 killed in Baghdad in 24 hours
# At least 25 killed in Basra. Overnight 12 prisoners removed from Basra prison and 11 killed
# Bomb aimed at Iraqi Army foot patrol kills 16 in Baquba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad — 8 soldiers and 8 civilians
# Also in Baquba, gunmen kill one at Sunni mosque
# Bomb kills policeman, wounds four in Iskandariya, south of Baghdad
# 7 US soldiers killed in northern Iraq
# Convoy of Iraq's Minister of Housing and Reconstruction stoned in Samarra
# Journalist for al-Arabiya TV killed with two members of her crew in Samarra
# Police and army leave cancelled
# Curfew hours extended in Baghdad and major cities from 8pm-6am
# Road to Abu Hanifa Mosque, most important Sunni mosque in Baghdad, closed by army
# Several thousand in Basra demonstrate near governing council offices
# About 1,000 demonstrate in Samawa, 170 miles south of Baghdad. Police guarding Sunni mosque in the town
# Leading Sunni group, the Muslim Clerics Association, blames Shia leaders for fuelling tensions
# Main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, pulls out of talks to form a new government, blaming ruling Shia alliance for violence
# President Talabani, a Kurd, meets Shia leaders

Original Text