Violence continues despite extended Baghdad curfew

At least 45 killed in sectarian attacks

February 26, 2006|By LIZ SLY | LIZ SLY,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD -- Despite an extended daytime curfew in Baghdad aimed at curbing three days of bloodshed, sectarian violence flared again yesterday, sustaining the sense of crisis that has gripped the country since one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines was attacked last week.

Political leaders from all factions held an emergency meeting last night at the home of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, hours after President Bush telephoned seven Iraqi leaders to urge them to restart negotiations on forming a new government and to find ways to restore calm.

It was the first time Bush had contacted Iraqi leaders since the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra ignited anti-Sunni fury among Iraq's Shiite majority. The intervention pointed to continued U.S. concerns that Iraq may yet disintegrate into civil war.

Nonetheless, U.S. officials said they were confident the worst of the crisis has passed. "The president has been pleased with the restraint shown," said National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones.

U.S. forces stepped up their presence on the streets of the capital in response to appeals from some Sunni leaders who say their communities do not trust the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces.

The continued tensions prompted the government to extend until tomorrow morning a ban on all vehicle traffic in Baghdad, which has been under a virtual lockdown since Thursday night. All travel between provinces was barred, but the curfew was lifted in areas outside Baghdad and pedestrians will be allowed to move in Baghdad today.

The Baghdad curfew was lifted for two hours at 6 p.m. yesterday, and the streets briefly filled with people rushing to buy bread and other supplies.

But the security clampdown did not prevent fresh attacks in which at least 45 people died, many of them Shiites or members of the Shiite-controlled police forces. This raised fears that Sunnis are starting to strike back after the wave of retaliatory attacks against Sunnis that followed the bombing of the Shiite shrine.

Three police commandos died when the funeral of a prominent Iraqi television journalist killed in the violence was ambushed in western Baghdad. Gunbattles erupted around a Sunni mosque in southwestern Baghdad after Interior Ministry forces dispatched to protect the mosque came under fire from gunmen inside. Later, the bodies of 14 slain police commandos were found nearby, and 11 other bodies were discovered across Baghdad, the Interior Ministry said.

Elsewhere, a car bomb killed at least four people in the Shiite holy city of Karbala and 13 members of a Shiite family were massacred in the town of Baqouba.

By last evening, the U.S. military more than quadrupled the number of its patrols, from 65 on Wednesday, the first day of the crisis, to 268, officials said.

Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, "has directed ... an increased security presence in those areas where terrorists might attack," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a military spokesman.

But the increased American presence on the streets of Baghdad, at a time when the U.S. military is accelerating the transfer of authority to Iraqi security forces as a prelude to withdrawing American soldiers, seemed to acknowledge that Iraqi security forces are struggling to keep control.

U.S. officials sought to play down the renewed violence, saying that tensions have dropped noticeably since the initial outpouring of rage at the bombing of the Shiite shrine led to a rash of retaliatory attacks against Sunni mosques. Though Shiite militias defied the curfew in many Shiite areas, the attacks on Sunni targets appear to have abated.

"The situation as a whole is improving," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said during a news conference. "The danger of a civil war as a result of this attack has diminished, though I don't believe we're out of danger yet."

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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