- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

BAGHDAD — Bombs and gunfire killed about 60 persons as another daytime curfew yesterday failed to halt violence that has claimed nearly 200 lives since the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine set off a wave of retribution against Sunnis and pushed Iraq toward civil war.

In an unusual round of telephone diplomacy, President Bush spoke with seven leaders of Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political parties to try to defuse the sectarian crisis unleashed by the heavy damage to the Shi’ites’ Askariya shrine in Samarra.

Mr. Bush “encouraged them to continue to work together to thwart the efforts of the perpetrators of the violence to sow discord,” said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council.

Reprisal attacks that followed the Wednesday blast in Samarra derailed talks on forming a new Iraqi government and threaten Washington’s goal of building up a self-sufficient Iraq free of U.S. military involvement.

A second straight day of curfew in Baghdad and three surrounding provinces kept the city relatively calm, raising hopes the worst of the crisis was past. Authorities lifted the curfew in areas outside Baghdad but decreed an all-day vehicle ban today for the capital and suburbs.

“I think the danger of civil war as a result of this attack has diminished, although I do not believe we are completely out of danger yet,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters last night.

A car bomb exploded in the Shi’ite city of Karbala, killing at least six persons, hospital officials said. Gunmen broke into a Shi’ite home northeast of Baghdad and killed 13 men, police said.

Bodies of 14 Iraqi police commandos were found close to their three burned vehicles near a Sunni mosque in southwestern Baghdad, police Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi said. Two rockets slammed into Baghdad’s Shi’ite slum, Sadr City, killing three , including a child, and wounding seven, police said.

Two Iraqi security officers guarding the funeral of Al Arabiya television correspondent Atwar Bahjat were killed and four other persons were wounded when a car bomb exploded as mourners left a cemetery in western Baghdad. Miss Bahjat was slain Wednesday along with two colleagues after covering the Samarra shrine bombing.

Earlier, shooting broke out as the funeral procession was carrying her coffin near the home of Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a prominent Sunni clerical group. One policeman was killed and two persons were wounded, police said.

At least 21 others died in small-scale shootings and bombings in Baghdad and western areas of the city, according to police and hospital reports.

Gunmen shot at two Sunni mosques in Baghdad, police said. Two rockets damaged a Shi’ite shrine late Friday in Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of Baghdad, police and witnesses said.

The crisis distracted attention from the approaching deadline set by the kidnappers of American reporter Jill Carroll, abducted Jan. 7 in Baghdad.

Miss Carroll, a freelancer for the Christian Science Monitor, was last seen on a videotape broadcast Feb. 10 by a Kuwaiti television station. It said the kidnappers threatened to kill her unless the U.S. met unspecified demands by today.

Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab, told reporters the government had one army division and one Interior Ministry armored brigade ready to move in case of a new outbreak of violence around the capital.

“All honorable Iraqis are asked today to do all they can to preserve Iraqi blood and avoid strife, which in case it breaks out will burn everyone,” Mr. al-Dulaimi said. “We do not want to burden the public with our security measures but the more we take, the more we can control acts of violence. If we have to, we are ready to fill the streets with [armored] vehicles.”

Following Mr. Bush’s phone call, the main Sunni political group said in a statement that it would return to talks on joining a new government if Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari followed through on promises to rebuild damaged religious sites and determine who was behind the Samarra bombing and the reprisals attacks on Sunnis that followed.

The Sunnis, who pulled out of government talks Thursday, sent representatives to a meeting with other factions late yesterday at Mr. al-Jaafari’s home. Mr. Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, also attended.

“[Friday] they were fighting each other,” Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman told the Associated Press. “Until noon [yesterday] there were no improvements, but suddenly after Bush called them, they all went to the meeting. There is strong American pressure because they are very much concerned about Iraq.”

Later, Mr. al-Jaafari said the parties agreed to repair all religious sites damaged in the latest violence and to compensate families of those killed. Sunni politician Naser al-Ani said the agreement was not enough for the Sunnis to end their boycott of coalition talks.


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