BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iraqi government on Friday ordered a daytime curfew in Baghdad and nearby provinces extended through Saturday after the clampdown appeared to have blunted the surge in sectarian violence.
The 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. curfew will remain in effect in Baghdad and the provinces of Diyala, Salaheddin and Babil — the same areas where the daytime movement ban was in force Friday to curb violence.
Iraqi state TV quoted a statement by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari as saying the decision was taken because of "extraordinary circumstances that our beloved country is passing through."
There had been fears that mosque sermons during Friday prayers would be the occasion for further violence, though a Shiite official said gunmen did fire two rockets at a tomb sacred to Shiites south of Baghdad, causing damage but no casualties.
Earlier, Iraq's most influential Shiite political leader called for Sunni-Shiite unity and condemned all killings of Iraqis in a bid to pull the nation back from the brink of civil war after the bombing of a Shiite shrine and a wave of deadly reprisal attacks.
Violence unleashed by the destruction on Wednesday of the golden dome of the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra, a predominantly Sunni city, has left almost 130 people dead. The government further stepped up security on Friday, imposing a ban on entering or leaving Baghdad and deploying of armed forces in tense areas.
Religious leaders, trying to calm tensions, met for talks and summoned Shiites and Sunnis to joint prayer services. Still, Iraqis feared the violence had pushed the country closer to civil war than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion nearly three years ago.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged the danger facing Iraq — and the U.S. strategy for disengaging from this country.
"Everything that needs to be done must be done to avoid a civil war, and I think they are keenly aware of the danger," he said of Iraq's leaders.
Shiite and Sunni clerics met Friday and agreed to work to discourage killings between the two sects. The meeting between followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and members of the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars was held in northern Baghdad's predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah, said Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, one of the participants from al-Sadr's group.
In a statement read over national television, top Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, condemned the killings of all Iraqis as well as reprisal attacks on Sunni or Shiite mosques. He said those who carried out the mosque bombing in Samarra "do not represent the Sunnis in Iraq."
Dhafer al-Ani, spokesman for the biggest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, praised al-Hakim's statement, calling it "a step on the road of healing the wounds."
But he said his Iraqi Accordance Front was still waiting for an apology from the government for failing to protect Sunni mosques from reprisal attacks, as well as a commitment to repair the damage and bring those responsible to justice.
The Sunni bloc Thursday suspended talks with the main Shiite alliance about forming a new government until its demands are met.
"We all have to unite in order to eliminate them," he said. "This is what al-Zarqawi is working for, that is, to ignite a sectarian strife in the country," he added. "We call for self-restraint."
Col. Jeffrey Snow, a U.S. Army brigade commander in Baghdad, said the pleas by Iraqi political and religious leaders were helping curb the escalation of sectarian violence.
"It appears as though the people have really listened to the government of Iraq as well as their religious leadership in terms of not allowing this to break down into violent acts," Snow said.
Al-Jaafari, a Shiite, said he had deployed Iraqi armed forces in areas of friction and banned most vehicles from entering or leaving the capital.
He also said measures had been taken to protect holy sites, ban the carrying of unauthorized weapons in the streets, and to rebuild the Shiite shrine in Samarra and other mosques damaged in the violence. A committee was appointed to establish responsibility for the "Samarra catastrophe," he said.
Khalilzad was optimistic Sunnis would return to the talks on forming a government. Without the establishment of an inclusive government, the U.S. strategy for disengagement from Iraq will collapse.
"Iraqis do not have a better alternative than to form a government of national unity," he told reporters at a news conference.
Several joint Sunni-Shiite prayer services were announced for Friday, including one at the Askariya shrine. But security forces turned away about 700 people, virtually all of them Sunnis, who showed up for the service.
Despite the daytime curfew Friday, security forces permitted worshippers to walk to mosque for midday prayers.
There was also little sign of the curfew in Baghdad's teeming Shiite slum, Sadr City, where armed militiamen loyal to al-Sadr have been out in force since Wednesday's mosque attack. Iraqi police found six bodies handcuffed and shot near a parking lot in the area, the Interior Ministry said.
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 security measures helped curb — but not eliminate — the violence.
The tomb of Salman Pak, also known as Salman al-Farisi, was attacked after sunset with two rockets, said Jamal al-Saghir, an aide to Shiite political leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. Although the shrine attracts Muslim pilgrims, it is not considered as venerable as the Askariya mosque in Samarra.
Al-Farisi was a 7th century Persian convert to Islam who served as the barber to the Prophet Muhammad. The tomb is located in the village of Salman Pak, 20 miles southeast of Baghdad.
In Samarra, a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol killed two officers 10 minutes after the daytime curfew expired.
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.
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.