BAGHDAD, Iraq – Fearing new attacks, Iraqi Sunnis largely shunned public celebrations of the end of the holy month of Ramadan on Monday, huddling in the relative safety of their homes following market bombings that killed at least nine people the day before.
The U.S. military reported the death of a member of the international force training Iraqi policemen in a roadside bombing in eastern Baghdad on Sunday. Four soldiers were also wounded in that attack, the military said, without giving details. Five soldiers were reported killed from gunfire or roadside bombs on Sunday, bring total U.S. troop deaths In October to 85 — the highest monthly toll since 2004.
U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials have said they hoped for a reduction of violence following Ramadan, during which killings had spiked to an average of more than 40 a day from a previous daily average of about 27.
Facing growing impatience with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's failure to stem the carnage, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said international forces must not abandon Iraq while the situation there remained volatile.
"I do believe there is no option for the international community to cut and run," Saleh told reporters after meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London. About 7,000 British troops are assigned to southern Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition force there.
Saleh said Iraqi forces will be in control of seven or eight of Iraq's 18 provinces by the end of the year, adding: "We understand that this cannot be an open-ended commitment by the international community."
The near absence of public displays of jubilation in Baghdad's Sunni areas reflects the worsening security in the capital, whose 6 million residents are roughly divided between Shiites and Sunnis, making it the main battlefield in the country's widening sectarian violence.
Iraq's majority Shiites will celebrate the three-day Eid al-Fitr Tuesday or Wednesday, which means Monday to them could be the last day of the holy month of Ramadan when devout Muslims refrain from food, water, sex and smoking from dawn to dusk.
Despite an increased police and army presence on the streets, many Baghdad Sunnis said they would rather stay home than risk falling victim to car bombs or Shiite death squads.
"We are telephoning friends and relatives or sending text messages to wish them a happy holiday," said Nadhim Aziz, a math teacher from the city's mixed district of New Baghdad.
He said he found fewer worshippers than last year when he went to a local mosque to perform the early morning prayers marking Eid al-Fitr.
"We were 50 to 60 in the mosque. Last year, there were about 400," Aziz lamented.
In Baghdad's Azamiyah district, home to Sunni Islam's holiest shrine in Iraq, the neighborhood's formerly bustling amusement parks and kebab eateries remained virtually empty.
Insurgents set the tone for the holiday on Sunday, with mortar and bomb attacks on Baghdad markets packed with shoppers buying sweets, pastries and new clothes.
"We are still afraid to venture outside Azamiyah," said Mohammed, a government employee.
The scene was different in the mainly Sunni city of Tikrit, former dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown, 80 miles north of Baghdad. Families thronged the city's main street, shopping, buying pastries and filling restaurants. Children in new clothes played on the street outside their homes.
"Brothers, we have to make use of these blessed days and stop killing each other and end our divisions," prayer leader Rashid Youssef al-Shamkhan told worshippers in one of the city's mosques. "We have to live together in peace again," he said.
Under increasing pressure to find new tactics to contain the bloodshed ahead of Nov. 7 Congressional elections, President George W. Bush administration has been meeting with top commanders in Washington.
However, the administration took issue with a report in The New York Times on Sunday that said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, were working on a plan that would outline milestones for disarming militias and meeting other political and economic goals.
The report said the blueprint, to be presented to al-Maliki by the end of this year, would not threaten Iraq with a withdrawal of U.S. troops. The White House said the article was not accurate, and the administration was constantly developing new tactics to help the Iraqi government sustain and defend itself and govern.
Khalilzad and Casey were scheduled to hold a rare joint news conference in Baghdad on Tuesday.
Also Sunday, a U.S. State Department official Alberto Fernandez apologized for saying U.S. policy in Iraq displayed "arrogance" and "stupidity" in an interview broadcast by Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera.
"Upon reading the transcript of my appearance on Al-Jazeera, I realized that I seriously misspoke by using the phrase 'there has been arrogance and stupidity' by the U.S. in Iraq," said Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in State's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. "This represents neither my views nor those of the State Department," Fernandez added in a statement. "I apologize."
Fernandez spoke in fluent Arabic in the interview, which Al-Jazeera said was taped in Washington on Friday. His remarks were translated into English by The Associated Press.
In the latest violence, a car bomb targeting a police patrol in central Baghdad killed three people, including two officers, and wounded ten other police and civilians, police Lt. Ali Mohsen said.
Unknown gunmen assassinated two police commanders in Amarah, where rival Shiite militias battled each other last week, a local hospital official said. Lt. Sarmad Majid al-Shatti from his home at 4:00 a.m. and his body was found six hours later at a farm on the southern city's outskirts with bullet wounds to the head and chest, said Ali Chaloub of Sadr General Hospital. Lt. Alaa al-Kabi was shot to death at 9:20 a.m. outside his home, Chaloub said.
Members of the Mahdi Army, loyalists of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, had attacked police stations and fought running gunbattles with members of the force, dominated by the rival Badr Brigade, leaving 25 dead.
Residents said police stations there remain closed and the city was largely in the hands of Mahdi fighters, who had pushed the police to the edges of town and were pursuing officers who had taken part in the fighting.
The clashes were sparked by the killing of the provincial head of police intelligence, a leading member of the Badr Brigade militia, setting off reprisals by both militias.
Members of the Badr Brigade then kidnapped the teenage brother of the local Mahdi Army commander, and the man's bullet-riddled body was found dumped in a farm in the outskirts of Amarah Monday. The body of the man, Hussein al-Bahadli, showed signs of severe torture, Chaloub said.
Five dead bodies were found floating in the Tigris in Suwayrah, 25 miles south of Baghdad, two of them in the uniform of electric company security guards, said morgue official Hadi al-Atabi.
The men had their throats cut and had been bound and blindfolded and showed signs of torture, al-Atabi said.