Thu, Jul 20, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Sectarian bloodbath spiraling out of control

DANGEROUS STREETS The prime minister's ballyhooed security plan for Baghdad is widely perceived as a failure as the death toll continues to rise


Iraqis walk past a car destroyed by a bomb explosion in Baghdad yesterday.


A Sunni driver lures Shiites into a van by promising jobs -- then blows it up, killing 53 people. Sunni gunmen spray bullets and grenades at shoppers, not caring that they include women and children. Shiite death squads roam Baghdad streets, singling out and slaughtering Sunnis.

The new unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds was supposed to bring Iraqis together. Instead, sectarian bloodletting is spiraling out of control.

In the last two days alone, more than 120 people were killed in two spectacular examples of Sunni-Shiite violence -- 53 in the suicide van bombing on Tuesday in Kufa and 50 in the massacre on Monday in the market in Mahmoudiya.

Since then, at least 19 more have been slain in Mahmoudiya in what police say were reprisals for the market massacre. Their bodies were found by police, scattered in different parts of town.

Dashed hopes

US officials had hoped the unity government, which took office May 20, could curb sectarian attacks by promoting cooperation between the sects. It promised to disband the Shiite militias and persuade Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms, so that US troops could go home.

But unity in parliament has not been translated into peace on the streets. Lawmakers elected on religiously based tickets find it difficult to restrain their constituents, whose lives are under constant threat by the rival religious group.

With the government unable to protect them, people put their trust in religious-based militias. The killings continue and the government loses respect with every mass killing.

"The security situation is heading toward collapse," Shiite politician Bassem Sharif warned last week. "There is sectarian animosity within the Iraqi public, and this is putting pressure on the political process."


* The UN says nearly 6,000 civilians were killed nationwide in May and last month.

* An AP count showed at least 696 Iraqis were killed in the first 18 days of this month.

* The UN estimated on June 27 that about 150,000 Iraqis had fled their homes to escape violence.

Instead of withdrawal, the top US commander, General George Casey, said last week that more US troops may take to the streets if Iraqi forces cannot cope with the rising violence.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may yet be able to reverse the slide. But public confidence is waning. His much-heralded security plan for Baghdad -- which includes 50,000 police and troops operating checkpoints and patrolling the capital -- is widely perceived as a failure.

Bad news

"Iraqis had hoped for good news when al-Maliki formed his Cabinet," commentator Moham- med al-Shabout wrote in the government-owned newspaper Al-Sabah. "But regrettably, the good news ceased. We regret to say all we have is bad news."

And there's plenty of bad news.

The UN reported on Tuesday that nearly 6,000 civilians were slain across Iraq in May and last month, a spike that coincided with rising sectarian attacks. The report said 2,669 civilians died in May and 3,149 last month -- the first full month of the al-Maliki government.

The report's figures were higher than some other counts, but even the UN said many killings go unreported.

An Associated Press count showed at least 696 Iraqis were killed in sectarian or war-related violence in the first 18 days of this month. That's a sharp rise over the same period last year, when an AP count showed more than 450 Iraqis were killed.

But statistics alone cannot convey the depth of the sectarian brutality.

Sunni gunmen in Mahmoudiya sprayed the crowd of mostly Shiite shoppers on Monday with automatic weapons and fired rocket-propelled grenades into the melee, according to police and survivors. In the aftermath, children lay on hospital gurneys, their legs shat-tered, their bodies writhing in pain.

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