BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Shiite and Sunni clerics, among the last vestige of authority in a country rapidly losing faith in politicians, charged yesterday that Iraq's plight was the result of U.S. mistakes and pleaded with their faithful to stem the bloodshed that followed a devastating attack on a mainly Shiite Baghdad slum.
In interviews yesterday and in recent sermons, clerics articulated one message that appears to be gaining traction on both sides of Iraq's civil war: The U.S. presence is making matters worse, and the Americans should go home.
"The roots of our problems lie in the mistakes of the Americans committed right from the beginning of their occupation," said Sheik Ali Mirza Asada, a Shiite cleric in Najaf who is a leader of Iraq's Dawa Party.
Iraq's most prominent Sunni cleric agreed.
In a Cairo, Egypt, news conference, Sheik Harith Dhari, demanded that American troops withdraw.
"Since the beginning, the U.S. occupation drove Iraq from bad to worse," said Dhari, who recently was named a fugitive from justice by Iraq's Shiite-led government for allegedly supporting terrorism.
The increased focus by the clerics on the U.S. presence in Iraq comes as U.S. officials review a broad range of options to address the increasing violence there and dwindling domestic support for the war. Options range from a short-term increase in the 144,000 troops to a phased withdrawal.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney made a quick visit yesterday to Saudi Arabia, Iraq's neighbor and a regional power. Saudi Arabia also is a source of funds for Sunni Arab insurgents and fighters in Iraq.
President Bush is scheduled to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan this week.
The clerics appealed for an end to retaliatory killings and kidnappings in the wake of a series of bombings in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad on Thursday that killed more than 200 people.
"The explosions we are witnessing and this series of attacks and killings only aim at triggering a sectarian war which neither Shiites nor Sunnis will win," said Sheik Abdul-Aziz Mohammed, a Shiite cleric in Kirkuk, in his most recent sermon. "The Prophet Muhammad said religious strife is dead, and condemned anyone who attempts to resurrect it."
Sheik Khalil Maliki, another Shiite cleric based in the southern port city of Basra, also blamed the United States. "We have all concluded that the primary party responsible for all these massacres is the American occupation," said Maliki, a representative of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Most people here expect Iraq's civil war to deepen as the government lifts curfew restrictions today and it is unclear whether even the clerics' appeals for calm are being heard.
Some prominent religious and political leaders accuse the U.S. military of conspiring with their enemies. Sunni Arabs say that U.S. troops are raiding their communities in coordination with Shiite militias. And Shiites say that U.S. forces are working with Sunni Arab terrorist groups to conduct strikes like the devastating car bomb barrage in Sadr City.
U.S. forces seeking a missing American serviceman believed to be held by al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia raided Sadr City only hours before Thursday's insurgent car bomb attack. Some Shiite clerics and politicians said those raids were evidence of American involvement in the attack.
Although U.S. military officials acknowledge that they have increased attacks in Shiite areas in Baghdad in pursuit of Army Spc. Ahmed Kousay Altaie, they dismiss the conspiracy theories as ridiculous. But the fact that so many influential Iraqis find them credible complicates U.S. efforts to staunch the bloodletting.
Al-Sadr, whose representatives are a key element in al-Maliki's Shiite coalition, threatened Friday to stage a walkout and bring down the government if al-Maliki went ahead with his meeting with Bush. U.S. and Iraqi officials said yesterday that there were no plans to cancel the meeting.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani canceled a trip to Tehran, Iran, today, where he had planned to discuss an Iranian proposal for three-way summit with Syria.
Reports emerged yesterday that Sunni Arab gunmen, using tactics usually attributed to Shiite militiamen, donned Iraqi army uniforms and kidnapped 21 men from a Shiite neighborhood in Ballad Ruz, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. Police later found their corpses. Eleven of the dead were men from the same family.
In west Baghdad, where most of Friday's sectarian fighting took place, at least two dozen mortars pounded a single block in the Sunni Arab-dominated Ghazaliyah neighborhood, where residents cowered inside their concrete and brick houses. One person died there. Following the mortar barrage, a local resident said U.S. forces swept into the neighborhood and arrested at least 10 people.
Projectiles also struck Sadr City and the neighborhood of Hay Mustansyria, crashing into a house and an open-air market and injuring 14 people.
The U.S. military announced that it had killed 22 suspected insurgents in the north Baghdad area in three separate incidents. Police in Baghdad found 17 bodies shot and stripped of identification.
Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.