21 Shiites shot dead

9 Sunnis killed by police

Iraq fails to fill 2 Cabinet posts


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Sectarian tensions escalated dangerously yesterday after gunmen north of Baghdad fatally shot 21 Shiite commuters and police in Basra killed at least nine Sunnis, capping a bloody weekend in which more than 100 people died in shootings, bombings and assassinations around the country.

The bloodshed came as Iraq's new legislature failed for a second straight week to come up with candidates for the Interior and Defense ministries. The posts were left unfilled when Iraq's government was formed more than two weeks ago and are considered crucial if the country's slide into sectarian violence is to be halted.

The besieged U.S. military, battling allegations that vengeful Marines willfully shot dead 24 civilians in the western town of Haditha, announced that three Iraqi civilians were killed Friday when a mortar round fired during an exercise at a base near Baqouba landed in their village.

The stalemate over the appointment of the ministers of Interior and Defense, promised respectively to a Shiite and a Sunni, is symptomatic of the power struggles threatening to tear Iraq apart despite the formation of what was hailed as a national unity government.

A session of parliament was called yesterday for legislators to approve the candidates, but it was canceled after the factions failed to agree -- and because not enough of the 275 legislators showed up to meet the 50 percent requirement for a quorum.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took office May 20 amid high hopes that a new government including Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds would be able to quell the violence and unite Iraqis. Promising tough action to defeat terrorism and disband militias, al-Maliki said he would name the security ministers "within days."

Since then, hundreds of people have died while the fighting continues. In the absence of leadership at the Interior and Defense ministries, a promised plan to restore security to the capital has not materialized.

In the worst incident yesterday, gunmen ambushed two minivans carrying commuters outside the village of Qara Tappah, about 70 miles north of Baghdad, and hauled out their passengers, many of them students traveling to Baqouba to take year-end exams.

The shootings came two days after the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, urged Sunnis to take up arms against Shiites; his rambling audiotape blamed Shiites for most of the region's woes over the past 1,400 years.

In the incident in the southern city of Basra, Iraqi police who fatally shot nine people also detained six in a raid early yesterday at al-Arab Sunni mosque. Police said the men were gunmen who died in a shootout triggered when police raided the mosque, several hours after a suicide bomber killed 28 people Saturday in a busy marketplace in the mostly Shiite city.

But Sunni politicians said that the nine people killed were civilians and that the bodies of the six who were detained later showed up at Basra's morgue.

"What's happening now in Basra is an organized campaign of displacement and expulsion of Sunnis," said Sunni politician Nour Eddin al Hayali.

Last week, al-Maliki declared a state of emergency in Basra in an attempt to curb the lawlessness that has taken hold there over the past year.

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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