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Top Shiite Leader: We Must Unite

Iraq's most influential Shiite political leader called Friday for Sunni-Shiite unity and condemned killings of Iraqis in a bid to pull the nation from the brink of civil war after the bombing of a Shiite shrine and a wave of deadly reprisal attacks.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said those who carried out Wednesday's bombing at the Askariya shrine in the city of Samarra "do not represent the Sunnis in Iraq."

Al-Hakim instead blamed Saddam Hussein loyalists and followers of Al Qaeda in Iraq boss Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"We all have to unite in order to eliminate them," al-Hakim said in a statement. "This is what al-Zarqawi is working for, that is, to ignite sectarian strife in the country," he added. "We call for self-restraint."

Al-Hakim issued his plea as U.S. officials urged Iraqi leaders to use their influence to calm the situation. A wave of reprisal attacks against Sunnis since the mosque bombing in Samarra has left about 130 people dead across the country.

Sunni Arab politicians pulled out of talks with Shiite religious parties on forming a new government to express their outrage over attacks against Sunnis.

"It was the right of Shiites in Iraq to express their anger through peaceful means and to call for putting an end to such flagrant attacks against the conscience of the nation and its holy places," al-Hakim said in a statement sent to The Associated Press by e-mail.

Shiite officials said they expected the statement to be disseminated by Shiite-owned media.

"The angry reaction led to attacks on mosques of our Sunni brothers in different parts of Baghdad and led to the death of dozens of them and there were also attacks against Shiites in other areas," al-Hakim said.

"We declare our rejection of any attack against a Sunni or a Shiite mosque in Iraq and we also condemn killing Iraqis."

The mosque attack in Samarra, a predominantly Sunni Arab city about 60 miles north of Baghdad, was the most damaging to a Shiite shrine in Iraq since the collapse of Saddam's regime in April 2003. Three attacks in 2003 and 2004 outside Shiite holy shrines in Baghdad and the southern holy cities of Karbala and Najaf left hundreds of people dead or wounded.

On Thursday, al-Hakim said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad bore some responsibility for the Samarra attack because he had enflamed tensions by warning Monday that the United States would not continue to support institutions run by sectarian groups with links to armed militias. Shiites control the Interior Ministry, which Sunnis claim operates death squads targeting them.

Al-Hakim said Khalilzad's comments "mobilized all the Shiites" and "made them ready to go down to the street at any moment."

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