BAGHDAD, Iraq – Sunnis and Shiites traded bombings and mortar fire against mainly religious targets in Baghdad well into the night Tuesday, killing at least 68 people a day after authorities lifted a curfew that had briefly calmed a series of sectarian reprisal attacks.
At least six of Tuesday's attacks hit clearly religious targets, concluding with a car bombing after sundown at the Shiite Abdel Hadi Chalabi mosque in the Hurriyah neighborhood that killed 23 and wounded 55. A separate suicide bombing killed 23 people at an east Baghdad gas station, where people had lined up to buy kerosine.
In addition to those known to have been killed Tuesday, police found nine more bullet-riddled bodies, including a Sunni Muslim tribal sheik, off a road southeast of Baghdad. It was unclear when they died.
The surge of violence deepened the trauma of residents already shaken by fears the country was teetering on the brink of sectarian civil war, threatened talks among Iraqi politicians struggling to form a government and raised questions about U.S. plans to begin drawing down troop strength this summer.
Iraq began to tilt seriously toward outright civil war after the Feb. 22 bombing of the important Shiite Askariya shrine in the mainly Sunni city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
President Bush decried the latest surge in sectarian violence Tuesday and said that for Iraqis "the choice is chaos or unity."
In congressional testimony, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said a civil war in Iraq could lead to a broader conflict in the Middle East, pitting the region's Sunni and Shiite powers against one another.
Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Michael Maples said the sectarian violence stems from a core of Sunni Arab insurgents who can exploit "social, economic, historical and religious grievances."
"Networks based on these relationships remain the greatest threat to long-term stability in Iraq," Maples said.
The sectarian violence has hit Baghdad hardest because the population in the capital is about evenly divided between Shiites and Sunnis, more so than in any other region of the country.
At about the same time as the attack on the Shiite Abdel Hadi Chalabi mosque, a mortar round landed near the Shiite Imam Kadhim shrine in the Kazimiyah neighborhood on the opposite side of the Tigris River, killing one and wounding 10.
Those attacks appeared to have been in retaliation for assaults on Sunni places of worship earlier in the day.
North of Baghdad, a blast badly damaged a Sunni mosque where the father of Saddam Hussein was buried in the family's ancestral hometown, Tikrit. The Iraqi Islamic Party reported a bomb hit the Sunni Thou Nitaqain mosque in the Hurriyah neighborhood at 8 a.m. Tuesday, killing three and wounding 11. Gunmen in two speeding cars opened fire on the Sunni al-Salam mosque in the western Baghdad's Mansour district, killing a guard.
Late Tuesday police reported finding the body of Shiite cleric Hani Hadi handcuffed, blindfolded and shot in the head near a Sunni mosque in Baghdad's notorious Dora neighborhood.
One of the day's bloodiest attacks came when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives vest packed with ball bearings among people lined up to buy kerosine at a crowded filling station in east Baghdad. The blast killed 23 people and wounded 51, leaving behind the charred and twisted remains of wheeled carts that customers had used to transport fuel canisters to the station.
A car bombing in the same neighborhood targeted a police patrol and killed five people and wounded 17 — all civilians.
Another car bomb hit a small market opposite the Shiite Timimi mosque in the mostly Shiite Karradah neighborhood, killing six people and wounding 16.
Separately and in an unusual move, the government issued a statement declaring that 379 people had been killed and 458 wounded as of 4 p.m. Tuesday in the sectarian violence tied to the Askariya bombing.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that more than 1,300 people were killed in the reprisal attacks. The Cabinet statement, however, said "what was reported in a foreign newspaper were inaccurate and exaggerated numbers of victims."
More than 60 relatives of the dead — many of them women dressed in black and beating their breasts as they wailed in grief — assembled with empty coffins at the morgue to take away their dead family members. One young man, who refused to give his name, told an AP reporter that his three brothers had gone out to buy bread Saturday night and were gunned down in a drive-by attack.
National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, meanwhile, traveled to the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Tuesday to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the Shiite community's most revered spiritual leader. Al-Rubaie emerged to tell reporters "the way to forming the government is difficult and planted with political bombs. We ask the Iraqi people to be patient, and we expect forming the government will take a few months."
In the south Tuesday, two British soldiers were killed in Amarah, 180 miles from Baghdad, the Defense Ministry reported in London, but gave no other details. A witness said a car bomb targeted a British patrol and helicopters were seen taking away casualties.
The U.S. military reported a U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire west of Baghdad on Monday. No details were provided. The death brought to at least 2,292 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an AP count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
In other violence Tuesday, a roadside bomb targeting the convoy of a defense ministry adviser killed five soldiers and injured seven others in the east Baghdad. The adviser, Lt. Gen. Daham Radhi al-Assal, escaped unharmed.