- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric yesterday warned the prime minister to quell violence or risk “other powers” filling the gap, while police found the tortured and blindfolded bodies of 13 Pakistani and Indian Muslim pilgrims and their Iraqi driver.

At least 15 violent deaths were reported elsewhere in Iraq, while the government announced it had formally taken over the notorious Abu Ghraib prison from U.S.-led coalition authorities.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, the cleric’s office said. In July, Ayatollah al-Sistani was credited with restraining the Shi’ite community from widespread retaliation against minority Sunnis following horrific attacks on Shi’ite civilians and religious sites.

“If the government does not do its duty in imposing security and order to the people and protecting them, it will give a chance to other powers to do this duty and this is a very dangerous matter,” the ayatollah’s office quoted him as saying.

The meeting took place two days after a barrage of coordinated attacks across mainly Shi’ite eastern Baghdad killed 64 persons and wounded 286. The prime minister’s office said that 17 suspects had been arrested after the bombings, but gave no further details.

Hundreds of Iraqis were slain last week, despite a massive security operation in the capital involving an extra 12,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops that targeted some of Baghdad’s most problematic neighborhoods.

In Washington, a day after a Pentagon report described spreading sectarian violence in Iraq, President Bush painted a more optimistic picture.

“Our commanders and diplomats on the ground believe that Iraq has not descended into a civil war,” Mr. Bush said in his weekly radio address, although he acknowledged “a bloody campaign of sectarian violence” and the “difficult and dangerous” work of trying to end it.

In the latest violence, police said yesterday that a group of pilgrims — 11 Pakistanis, including five women, and two Indians — and their Iraqi driver were ambushed and killed on their way to the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of the capital.

The bodies, blindfolded and with hands and feet bound, all bore signs of torture, an official at the Karbala morgue said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the 14 had been dead for three days and their bodies had been found Friday.

Tensions also brewed in the north, with a leading Sunni politician slamming a decision by Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani ordering the Iraqi national flag to be replaced with the Kurdish one in his northern autonomous region.

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