KARBALA, Iraq – Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president renewed his call for Sunni-led insurgents to quickly join the Shiite prime minister's national reconciliation effort, while a Shiite festival that drew millions of pilgrims was held without bloodshed Saturday.
Attacks around Iraq killed at least 12 people, including two gunmen and two would-be bombers. Seven apparent victims of sectarian killings, their bodies all showing signs of torture, also were found dumped on city streets and in a river.
During a meeting with community leaders from a predominantly Sunni Arab district in Baghdad, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said it was not too late to stop spiraling sectarian conflict, "as the rules of the game have been changed and problems can't be solved only by weapons."
"This is a call for the Iraqi resistance to think ... and sit around the negotiating table before it's too late," he told about 100 people at Islamic University in the Azamiyah neighborhood. "Differences will devastate Iraq and this division is not to our benefit."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who announced he will be visiting Iran on Monday for talks on security and bilateral relations, unveiled a 24-point reconciliation plan last month that he hopes will bridge the religious, ethnic and political divisions feeding Iraq's violence.
The plan includes an offer of amnesty to members of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency not involved in terrorist activities, and calls for disarming primarily Shiite sectarian militias.
But no major Sunni Arab insurgent group has publicly agreed to join the plan, and many Shiite militias are controlled by legislators themselves. Car bombings, mortar attacks and shootings have killed hundreds of Iraqis the past few weeks.
Amid worries about sectarian attacks, including an assault by snipers that disrupted a Shiite observance in Baghdad last month, a major security operation was mounted in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, to protect Saturday's festival observing the birthday of Imam al-Mahdi, a 9th century religious leader.
In most Shiite Muslim sects, Mahdi is considered the last "imam," or leader of the Shiite community. The son of the 11th imam, Hasan al-Askari, he is said to have disappeared in the 9th century. But Shiites believe he is still alive and will one day return as a savior of mankind.
Authorities imposed a four-day vehicle ban in Karbala, while thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers — backed by air support from the U.S.-led coalition — fanned out across the city to ward off potential suicide bombers.
Hundreds of people have died in suicide bombings and other attacks in Karbala since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. Suspicion has fallen on Sunni Arab extremist groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq, which consider Shiites to be heretics and collaborators with the Americans.
Many pilgrims walk to Karbala from across Iraq. But while several attacks on processions heading to the city were reported in the days before the festival, the event itself passed off without violence and authorities lifted the vehicle ban Saturday afternoon.
Authorities estimated that 3 million to 4 million pilgrims from across the Arab world, as well as from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and India, attended the festival.
The "festival today ended without any incident," Minister of State for National Security Sherwan al-Waili said, thanking Iraqi and coalition forces.
But no day in Iraq goes by without violence.
Two roadside bombs planted near each other exploded as a police foot patrol passed in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing four people and wounding 16, police said.
A parked car bomb struck a U.S. military convoy in eastern Baghdad, killing at least two passers-by and wounding five, police said. The U.S. military said three coalition soldiers were wounded.
Police prevented a suicide car bomber from striking a police station near a mosque in northern Baghdad by shooting the driver before he could reach the building. But the explosives in his car detonated, killing an officer and wounding 10 civilians, the Interior Ministry said.
In the center of the capital, a bomb exploded as a man planted it by the side of a road, killing him and wounding another person.
Authorities found the bullet-riddled bodies of six people dumped on streets in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, the army said. All had their hands and feet bound and bore signs of torture, a hallmark of sectarian killings that have escalated since a Shiite shrine was bombed in February.
Police also found an unidentified body in the Tigris River in Suwayah, 25 miles south of Baghdad. The blindfolded and bound body had been shot several times, Kut city morgue said.