Thousands of Shiite youths, many wearing white shrouds, converged Thursday on Baghdad for a pro-Hezbollah rally, as the city was rocked by a motorcycle bomb that killed 12 people — the latest victims of violence that senior generals warn could lead to civil war.
Two U.S. Marines were killed Thursday in Anbar province west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. At least 13 U.S. troops have been killed in Anbar since July 27.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr summoned his followers around the country to attend a mass rally Friday in the capital's Sadr City district in support of Hezbollah as the Shiite guerrilla group battles Israeli forces in southern Lebanon.
Crowds began arriving in the eastern Baghdad slum neighborhood late Thursday and were housed in mosques and Shiite community centers. U.S. Army vehicles were seen Thursday evening guarding the approaches to Sadr City to prevent clashes between Shiite and Sunni extremists.
Some incidents were reported before the militants even made it to the capital.
Police said one al-Sadr follower was killed by U.S. troops near Mahmoudiya after he brandished a weapon. U.S. officials said two people were killed after gunmen in three vehicles shot at the guard towers of a U.S. base near the city and U.S. soldiers fired back.
At least 15 al-Sadr loyalists were injured when bombs exploded a busload of them traveled through southern Baghdad en route to Sadr City from southern Iraq, police Capt. Firas Geti said.
About 20 buses carrying al-Sadr followers headed to Baghdad from Basra, the country's second largest city. Most of the passengers were draped in the white shrouds that Muslims use to wrap their dead — a symbol of their willingness to die for Lebanon. The rally was supposed to focus on events in Lebanon rather than Iraq, where violence between Sunnis and Shiites is on the rise.
Nevertheless, the presence of so many young Shiite militants — most of them from al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia — adds a new and dangerous new element to an already volatile situation in the capital.
Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate committee in Washington that sectarian violence in Iraq "is probably as bad as I have seen it" and if the spiral continues the country "could move toward civil war."
In the latest violence, a bomb strapped to a motorcycle exploded Thursday in the center of Baghdad, killing at least 12 people and injuring 29, police said. The blast occurred near a group of fruit and vegetable vendors in a major shopping district, according to police Lt. Ahmed Mohammed Ali.
At least 15 other people were killed or found dead Thursday across the country, including nine bodies found floating in the Tigris River — some of them bound and with bullet wounds in their bodies.
The planned Sadr City rally is aimed at mustering support for the Lebanese guerrillas and against Israel — and by extension against the United States for failing to force an end to the fighting. U.S. armored vehicles were seen Thursday evening guarding the entrances to Sadr City.
Buses carrying the rally participants were plastered with pictures of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who has assumed a hero status in the Arab world for confronting the Israelis. The men waved the yellow flags of Hezbollah and carried banners that read "Here we are Lebanon."
"This is all to demonstrate our support for the Lebanese people and to condemn the aggression of the Israeli enemy," said Saheb al-Ameri, an al-Sadr aide in Najaf. "They are willing to face death even if it's on the road" to Baghdad.
U.S. officials have blamed al-Sadr's militiamen for much of the sectarian violence, which escalated after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, which unleashed a wave of reprisal attacks against Sunnis nationwide.
Sectarian tensions are greatest in Baghdad, whose 6 million inhabitants represent all of Iraq's numerous religious, ethnic and cultural communities. The U.S. is moving thousands of additional troops to Baghdad to try to reclaim the streets from gunmen.
In testimony Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Abizaid and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the surge in sectarian violence in Baghdad in recent weeks means Iraq may descend into civil war.
"We do have the possibility of that devolving into civil war," Pace said, adding that such a conflict was not inevitable but that ultimately it depends on the Iraqis more than on the U.S. military.
Those comments represented a dramatic departure from public comments made by other senior U.S. military officials, who insisted that the level of sectarian violence had been exaggerated and that Iraqi authorities were fully capable of controlling the situation.
In a confidential report, Britain's former ambassador to Iraq, William Patey, warned that the country is sliding toward civil war and is likely to break up along ethnic lines, according to a report Thursday by the British Broadcasting Corp.
BBC said Patey called for greater efforts toward reining in sectarian militias directed at policing militia groups, including al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which he said could develop into "a state within a state," as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon.