- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

BAGHDAD — Gunmen killed dozens of civilians yesterday and dumped their bodies in a ditch, as the government ordered a tough daytime curfew of Baghdad and three provinces to stem the sectarian violence that has left at least 114 dead since the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine.

Seven U.S. soldiers died in a pair of roadside bombings north of the capital, and U.S. military units in the Baghdad area were told to halt all but essential travel to avoid getting caught up in demonstrations or roadblocks.

As the country careened to the brink of civil war, Iraqi state television announced an unusual daytime curfew, ordering people off the streets today in Baghdad and the nearby flash-point provinces of Diyala, Babil and Salaheddin, where the shrine bombing took place.

Such a sweeping daytime curfew indicated the depth of fear within the government that the crisis could touch off a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.

“This is the first time that I have heard politicians say they are worried about the outbreak of civil war,” said Kurdish elder statesman Mahmoud Othman.

The biggest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament announced that it was pulling out of talks on a new government until the national leadership apologizes for damage to Sunni mosques from reprisal attacks.

“It is illogical to negotiate with parties that are trying to damage the political process,” said Tariq al-Hashimi, a leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front.

Most of the bloodshed has been concentrated in the capital, its surrounding provinces and the province of Basra, 340 miles to the southeast.

Among the victims was Atwar Bahjat, a widely known Sunni correspondent for the Arab satellite television station Al-Arabiya.

Gunmen in a pickup truck shouting, “We want the correspondent,” killed Miss Bahjat along with her cameraman and engineer while they were interviewing Iraqis about Wednesday’s destruction of the famed golden dome of the Shi’ite shrine Askariya in her hometown of Samarra.

Shi’ite and Sunni leaders again appealed for calm yesterday after the wave of reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques, and the number of violent incidents appeared to decline after the government extended the curfew.

Iraqi television said the curfew would extend until 4 p.m. today, preventing people from attending the week’s most important Muslim prayer service. Officials feared that mosques could be both a target for attacks and a venue for stirring sectarian feelings.

President Bush said he appreciated the appeals for calm, and called the shrine bombing “an evil act” aimed at creating strife.

A Shi’ite cleric was fatally shot yesterday in Tuz Khormato, a mostly Kurdish city 130 miles north of Baghdad, and another Sunni preacher was killed in the mostly Shi’ite city of Hillah 60 miles south of the capital.

Two Sunni mosques were burned yesterday in Baghdad and another in Mussayib to the south, police said. A Sunni was killed when gunmen fired on a mosque in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Dozens of bodies were found yesterday dumped at sites in Baghdad and the Shi’ite heartland in southern Iraq, many of them with their hands bound and shot execution-style.

The bodies of the 47 civilians, mostly men between the ages of 20 and 50, were found early yesterday in a ditch near Baqouba. Police said the victims — both Sunnis and Shi’ites — apparently had been stopped by gunmen, hauled from their cars and shot.

Fighting erupted in Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, between Sunni gunmen and militiamen loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who were guarding a mosque. Two civilians were killed and five militiamen were wounded, police Capt. Rashid al-Samaraie said.

Workers at two U.S.-funded water-treatment projects in Baghdad were told to stay home yesterday to avoid trouble. U.S. officials also ordered a lockdown in some locations within the Green Zone, home of U.S. and Iraqi government offices, after two or three mortar shells exploded, causing no casualties.

Eight Iraqi soldiers and eight civilians were killed yesterday when a bomb hidden in a soup vendor’s cart detonated in Baqouba, police said. At least 20 persons were wounded in the blast. In Julula, 75 miles northeast of Baghdad, a parked car exploded and killed three civilians and injured three others, police said.

After the sectarian attacks, Shi’ite and Sunni leaders blamed each other for the violence, with each side portraying itself as the victim.

The Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars said at least 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked, 10 imams killed and 15 abducted since the shrine attack. The Interior Ministry said it could confirm only figures for Baghdad, where it had reports of 19 mosques attacked, one cleric killed and one abducted.

In Beirut, tens of thousands of Lebanese Shi’ites beat their chests in mourning and shouted anti-American slogans in a rally yesterday to protest the bombing of a Muslim shrine in Iraq.

Leaders of both Shi’ite and Sunni communities have called for calm and tried to shift attention — and blame — to the United States.

“Let’s not blame each other. We shouldn’t give them that opportunity,” Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told tens of thousands in south Beirut, a stronghold of the Shi’ite militant organization. He said Shi’ites should limit their accusations to “the American occupation” in Iraq and Sunni extremists.

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