Fri, Feb 24, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Sectarian killings trigger Iraq police and army alert


Gunmen killed 47 civilians near Baghdad and militia fighting broke out south of the capital yesterday in a wave of violence triggered by the bombing of a Shiite shrine and reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques. All leave for Iraqi soldiers and police was canceled and personnel ordered to report to their units.

Sunni Arabs also suspended their participation in talks on a new government.

Sixteen other people, eight of them civilians, died in a bombing yesterday in the center of Baqubah, while three journalists working for al-Arabiya television were found dead in Samarra.

As the country veered ominously toward sectarian war, the government extended the curfew in Baghdad and Salaheddin Province for two days in the wake of Wednesday's attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra.

Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr accused the Iraqi government and US forces of failing to protect the Samarra shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, and ordered his militia to defend Shiite holy sites across Iraq.

"If the government had real sovereignty, then nothing like this would have happened," al-Sadr said a statement. "Brothers in the Mahdi Army must protect all Shiite shrines and mosques, especially in Samarra."

The destruction of the gleaming dome of the 1,200-year-old shrine sent crowds of angry Shiites into the streets. Thousands of demonstrators carrying Shiite flags and banners marched through parts of Baghdad, Karbala, Kut, Tal Afar and Najaf in protest against the shrine attack.

The hardline Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars said 168 Sunni mosques were attacked, 10 imams killed and 15 abducted. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

Association spokesman Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi blamed the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and other Shiite religious leaders for calling demonstrations against the shrine attack.

"They are all fully aware that the Iraqi borders are open, and the streets are penetrated with those who want to create strife among Iraqis," al-Kubaisi said at a news briefing.

Forty-seven bodies were found in a ditch in Diyala, a province northeast of Baghdad. Officials said the victims appeared to have been stopped by gunmen, forced out of their cars and shot near Nahrawan, about 20km south of Baqubah. Most were aged between 20 and 50 and appeared to include both Sunnis and Shiites, police said.

The bullet-riddled bodies of a prominent al-Arabiya TV female correspondent and two other Iraqi journalists, who had been covering Wednesday's explosion in Samarra, were found on the outskirts of the mostly Sunni Arab city 95km north of Baghdad.

Fighting broke out yesterday afternoon in Mahmoudiya south of Baghdad between militiamen from al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and Sunni gunmen. Two civilians were killed and five militiamen were injured, police Captain Rashid al-Samaraie said.

The eight Iraqi soldiers and eight civilians were killed when a soup vendor's cart packed with explosives detonated as a patrol passed in the center of Baqubah, 55km northeast of Baghdad, police Major Falah al-Mohammedawi said.

At least 20 people were injured in the blast.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, summoned political leaders to a meeting yesterday. But the biggest Sunni faction in the new parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, refused to attend, citing the attacks on Sunni mosques.

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