Published February 26, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Violence began to recede following calls for restraint from Islamic religious leaders, including radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose own militia was blamed for many of the attacks on Sunnis.
On Saturday, al-Sadr's movement joined Sunni clerics in agreeing to prohibit killing members of the two sects and banning attacks on each other's mosques. The clerics issued a statement blaming "the occupiers," meaning the Americans and their coalition partners, for stirring up sectarian unrest.
"We demand that the occupiers leave or set a timetable for the withdrawal," the statement said.
Before the clerics' calls, bombs and gunfire killed about 60 people as another daytime curfew Saturday failed to halt violence that has claimed nearly 200 lives since the destruction of a Shiite shrine set off a wave of retribution against Sunnis and pushed Iraq toward civil war.
In an unusual round of telephone diplomacy, President Bush spoke with seven leaders of Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political parties in a bid to defuse the sectarian crisis unleashed by the bombing of the Shiites' Askariya shrine in Samarra.
Bush "encouraged them to continue to work together to thwart the efforts of the perpetrators of the violence to sow discord among Iraq's communities," said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council.
Reprisal attacks that followed the Wednesday blast in Samarra have derailed talks on a forming new Iraqi government and threaten Washington's goal of building up a self-sufficient Iraq free of U.S. military involvement.
But Bush's personal intervention appeared to ease Sunni fears. Tariq al-Hashimi, leader of the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, said after speaking with Bush that a new government was the best way to ease the sectarian crisis.
A second straight day of curfew in Baghdad and three surrounding provinces kept the city relatively calm, raising hopes the worst of the crisis was past. Authorities lifted the curfew in the areas outside Baghdad but decreed an all-day vehicle ban Sunday for the capital and its suburbs.
"I think the danger of civil war as a result of this attack has diminished, although I do not believe we are completely out of danger yet," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters Saturday night.
Nevertheless, bloodshed continued.
A car bomb exploded in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, killing at least six people, hospital officials said. Gunmen broke into a Shiite home northeast of Baghdad and massacred 13 male members, police said.
Bodies of 14 Iraqi police commandos were found near their three burned vehicles near a Sunni mosque in southwestern Baghdad, police Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi said. Two rockets slammed into Baghdad's Shiite slum, Sadr City, killing three people, including a child, and wounding seven, police said.
Two Iraqi security officers guarding the funeral of an Al-Arabiya television correspondent Atwar Bahjat were killed and four other people were wounded when a car bomb exploded as mourners left a cemetery in western Baghdad. Bahjat was slain Wednesday along with two colleagues after covering the Samarra shrine bombing.
Earlier, shooting broke out as the funeral procession was carrying her coffin near the home of Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a prominent Sunni clerical group. One policeman was killed and two people were wounded in the shooting, police said.
At least 21 other people died in small-scale shootings and bombings in Baghdad and western areas of the city, according to police and hospital reports.
Gunmen also shot at two Sunni mosques in Baghdad Saturday, police said. And two rockets damaged a Shiite shrine late Friday in Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of Baghdad, police and witnesses said.
The crisis has distracted attention from the approaching deadline set by the kidnappers of American journalist Jill Carroll, abducted Jan. 7 in Baghdad. Carroll, a freelancer for the Christian Science Monitor, was last seen on a videotape broadcast Feb. 10 by a Kuwaiti television station. It said the kidnappers threatened to kill her unless the U.S. met unspecified demands by Sunday.
"There are no new developments on her case so far because we are busy with a lot of things right now," Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal said Saturday. "We know about the deadline and we hope that we can reach her before they manage to kill her."
Faced with one of the gravest threats of the turbulent U.S. presence in Iraq, American officials mounted a furious effort to get the political process back on track while Iraqi authorities defended their handling of the crisis.
Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab, told reporters the government had one army division and one Interior Ministry armored brigade ready to move in case of a new outbreak of violence around the capital.
"All honorable Iraqis are asked today to do all they can to preserve Iraqi blood and avoid strife, which in case it breaks out will burn everyone," al-Dulaimi said. "We do not want to burden the public with our security measures but the more we take, the more we can control acts of violence. If we have to, we are ready to fill the streets with (armored) vehicles."
Following Bush's phone call, the main Sunni political group said in a statement that it would return to talks on joining a new government if Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari followed through on promises to rebuild damaged religious sites and determine who was behind the Samarra bombing and the reprisals attacks on Sunnis that followed.
The Sunnis, who pulled out of government talks Thursday, sent representatives to a meeting with other factions late Saturday at al-Jaafari's home. Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, also attended.
"(Friday) they were fighting each other," Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman told The Associated Press. "Until noon (Saturday) there were no improvements but suddenly after Bush called them, they all went to the meeting. There is strong American pressure because they are very much concerned about Iraq."
Later, al-Jaafari said the parties agreed to repair all religious sites damaged in the latest violence and to compensate families of those who were killed. But Sunni politician Naser al-Ani said the agreement was not enough for the Sunnis to end their boycott of coalition talks.
Getting talks on a new government back on track is critical for the Bush administration plan to establish a broad-based government that can win the trust of Sunni Arabs, who form the backbone of the insurgency. With a new government in place, Washington hopes to begin withdrawing some of its 138,000 soldiers this year.
Without such a government in place, U.S. officials have said a drawdown could threaten the stability of Iraq, which lacks a fully trained and equipped military and police force to face the insurgents.
The speed with which the reprisal attacks spread Wednesday — breaking out in Baghdad, Basra and smaller, religiously mixed cities — raised new doubts about the capability of Iraq's security forces to maintain order.