BAGHDAD -- Iraq's internecine violence worsened yesterday as Shiite and Sunni Arabs engaged in retaliatory attacks following coordinated car bombings that killed more than 200 people in a Shiite slum the day before - even as a main Shiite political faction threatened a walkout, a move that would likely lead to the government's collapse and plunge the nation deeper into disarray.
Thursday's massacre in Sadr City, a Shiite slum that is a stronghold of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army, sparked a flurry of attacks around the country, reinforced doubts about the effectiveness of the Iraqi government and U.S. military, and emboldened Shiite vigilantes.
In a sermon Sadr delivered yesterday, the cleric argued that the U.S. military's refusal to grant full control of the Iraqi security forces to the Iraqi government was leaving the populace vulnerable to insurgent attacks. And as militiamen loyal to Sadr took matters into their own hands in fierce battles with Sunni Arabs yesterday, Sadr's political representatives demanded that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signal his displeasure with the U.S. occupation by canceling a meeting scheduled with President Bush in Jordan next week.
Sadr's representatives said they would withdraw from al-Maliki's government if the prime minister did not submit to their demands.
In defiance of an emergency curfew, gunfire crackled throughout the day and mortar rockets arced over Baghdad's jagged skyline, smashing into houses of worship, residences and shops. By last night, at least 65 people were reported killed in attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere.
A dozen or more Sunni mosques were hit by rockets, gunfire or burned to the ground by Shiite mobs around the country. Masked members of the Mahdi Army swept through Sunni Arab areas, setting up unsanctioned checkpoints and threatening to execute Sunni families that didn't leave their homes within 48 hours.
Hurriyah, or "Liberty" - a mixed enclave in western Baghdad - saw some of yesterday's most pitched battles. Uniformed men in police vehicles roared through the streets launching rocket-propelled grenades into houses and raking Sunni mosques with gunfire, according to an Iraqi police officer stationed in Hurriyah. The attackers killed three security guards at one Sunni house of worship and injured 10 worshipers as they sought refuge in the mosque's sanctuary.
"They proceeded to bombard the building with rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, starting a fire that consumed the structure," said the police officer, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
As the uniformed assailants advanced to another area, however, members of the Battawia tribe, a prominent Sunni Arab clan in the area, fought back.
"They were ready for them and ambushed the attackers, countering them with RPGs and machine guns," the police officer said. A fierce firefight ensued, with casualties on both sides. A nearby hospital reported that it had received 28 bodies and 32 injured people.
The policeman said that he and his fellow officers stood alongside Iraqi army units on the edge of the battle, watching the bloodshed. "The army did not interfere," the officer said. "And we didn't receive any orders to interfere. We would not have interfered even in the event that we were ordered to do so because this is the Iraqi army's turf."
By last night, police had discovered at least 11 bodies around Baghdad.
The reprisals were not limited to the capital.
In Baqubah, 25 miles northeast of Baghdad, Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militiamen exchanged ragged bursts of machine-gun fire in the streets and lobbed explosives at one another as clerics called, "God is great," from the city's mosques. Sunni Arab insurgents used bombs to destroy a Sadr Movement office shortly after U.S. troops raided the building and detained six militiamen. Militiamen responded later in the day by destroying a Sunni mosque and toppling its minaret with a missile.
In the far northern town of Tall Afar, a car bomb ripped through a crowded car dealership, killing at least 22 people and injuring 26 others.
In the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, police found the bullet-riddled body of a pipeline security guard, and a bomb damaged the Wahhab mosque, one of the largest Sunni houses of worship in that city.
In the southern port city of Basra, rocket-propelled grenades damaged a mosque, the headquarters for the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq and an apartment complex, injuring 15 people.
In Fallujah, a restive Sunni Arab city in Anbar province, a car bomb exploded at an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing at least six soldiers.
Meanwhile, a solemn caravan of grieving Shiites drove casket-laden vehicles from Baghdad's Sadr City slum to Najaf's ancient necropolis to bury victims of Thursday's attack, the deadliest single incident in Iraq since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.