Friday, February 24, 2006

Iraqi Government Orders Daytime Curfews

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Religious leaders summoned Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis to joint prayer services Friday amid an extraordinary daytime curfew aimed at halting a wave of sectarian violence that has killed nearly 130 people since the bombing of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines.

Police and soldiers blocked major roads and surrounded Baghdad's two main Sunni mosques as streets throughout this city of nearly 7 million emptied of people and traffic. The nation stood on the brink of civil war and the American strategy in Iraq faced its gravest test since the 2003 invasion.

Residents in Samarra, where the shrine bombing took place Wednesday, were instructed over loudspeakers to stay indoors "until further notice." Many planned to attend a joint Shiite-Sunni prayer service at the Askariya shrine, whose famed golden dome was reduced to a pile of rubble.

In the southern Shiite heartland, more than 10,000 people converged on Basra's al-Adillah mosque, where a representative of Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called another joint service with Sunnis.

The extraordinary measures helped curb - but did not eliminate - the violence.

In Basra, where the curfew was not in effect, gunmen Friday kidnapped three children of a Shiite legislator. The son and two daughters of Qasim Attiyah al-Jbouri - aged between 7 and 11 years - were abducted by several armed men near the family home, police said.

Al-Jbouri is a member of the Islamic Dawa Party-Iraq Organization and is the former head of Basra's provincial council.

Elsewhere, police found the bodies of two bodyguards for the Basra head of the Sunni Endowment, a government body that cares for Sunni mosques and shrines. They had been shot.

Late Thursday, Iraqi state television announced an extension of the nighttime curfew until 4 p.m. Friday in Baghdad and the nearby provinces of Diyala, Babil and Salaheddin, where the shrine bombing took place.

But there was little sign of the curfew in Baghdad's teeming Shiite slum, Sadr City, where armed militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been out in force since Wednesday's attack. Iraqi police found six bodies handcuffed and shot near a parking lot 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.

In the northern town of Birtilla, which is not covered by the curfew, 500 Iraqi Shiites marched to demand the execution of ousted President Saddam Hussein and death to Sunni fanatics.

The curfew was aimed at preventing 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," Kurdish elder statesman Mahmoud Othman told The Associated Press.

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

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

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

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

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

A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said discussions were under way to rebuild the shrine as quickly as possible because the shattered structure would serve as a "lasting provocation." Italy offered Thursday to rebuild the dome to help battle "fanaticism."

Despite strident comments from various Iraqi leaders, U.S. 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 U.S. command, told reporters Thursday.

Among the victims of the violence 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 Wednesday while they were interviewing Iraqis about the bombing in her hometown of Samarra.

Shiite militiamen have sprayed bullets and set fire to Sunni mosques, and a dozen clerics - most of them Sunni - have been reported killed since Wednesday.

The Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars said at least 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked, but 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.

Dozens of bodies have been found dumped at sites in Baghdad and the Shiite heartland in southern Iraq, many of them with their hands bound and shot execution-style.

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

The bodies of 47 civilians, mostly men aged between 20 and 50, were found early Thursday in a ditch near Baqouba. Police said the victims - both Sunnis and Shiites - had apparently been stopped by gunmen, hauled from their cars 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, police Capt. Rashid al-Samaraie said.

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



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