- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

BAGHDAD — City residents ventured into the streets for the first time in three days yesterday, taking heart in a relative letup in the wave of killing and destruction that has shaken the country since bombers destroyed one of Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite mosques.

Bomb blasts and gunfire killed at least 27 persons, including two U.S. soldiers, in Baghdad and nearby towns despite a nationally televised appeal for calm from religious leaders, who joined hands before television cameras in a symbolic gesture of Muslim unity.

An emergency daylight curfew was lifted in Baghdad and three provinces but a 24-hour vehicular ban remained in effect around the capital until this morning.

But even that was an improvement for Najiya Saadoun, who for three days had hunkered down as black-clad gunmen cruised the streets in pickup trucks and bullet-riddled bodies piled in morgues.

“I feel happier now. I think the future will be good,” the 56-year-old woman said while hurrying down an unusually quiet street to shop for groceries. “For the last three days, I made use of what I had at home for the family. I will try to get some vegetables for today’s meal.”

Like other residents, she hoped the worst is over after four days of sectarian killings and reprisal attacks following the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra. Curfews and vehicle bans have left cars out of gas, money running low and store shelves emptying fast.

Interior Ministry official Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi said the ban on private vehicles in Baghdad would end at 6 a.m. today because the crisis is easing and citizens need to purchase food supplies.

Nevertheless, several violent incidents were reported.

At least 11 mortar rounds slammed into a predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood in the capital last night, killing at least 15 persons and wounding 49, police said.

A bomb exploded at a Shi’ite mosque in Basra, injuring at least two persons, police said. Shi’ites from across Iraq visit the Emir Mosque because they believe one of their 12 saints prayed there in the ninth century.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in western Baghdad, the military said.

In the capital, bakeries and supermarkets did a brisk trade. But with private vehicles still barred from the streets and no new supplies reaching the city, prices were spiking.

Rice that cost the equivalent of 23 cents a pound at midweek was selling for 32 cents. Fresh produce was hard to find.

Most shops and businesses remained boarded up, and streets normally choked with traffic for the start of the work week were eerily empty.

“We can’t go on like this,” said Saad Hussein, a 35-year-old taxi driver, whose car remained parked in front of his house. “I am married, I have four children, and we depend on what I earn daily with this car. If this car is stopped, what can I do?”

Tensions began to ease after President Bush spoke Saturday with seven leaders of Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political parties, giving new impetus to political moves to resolve the crisis.

During a late-night meeting at Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s residence, representatives of Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish parties agreed to renew efforts to form an inclusive government.

But Sunni politician Nasir al-Ani said yesterday the Sunnis were looking for some tangible steps before ending their boycott of the talks.

Sunni and Shi’ite religious leaders also met Saturday, agreeing to prohibit killings and ban attacks on each other’s mosques. The clerics issued a statement blaming “the occupiers,” meaning the Americans and their coalition partners, for stirring up sectarian unrest.

“We demand that the occupiers leave or set a timetable for the withdrawal,” the clerics said.

They included followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose own militia was blamed for many of the attacks on Sunni mosques.

Sheik al-Sadr called for a stop to the attacks when he addressed supporters in Basra after returning yesterday from neighboring Iran.

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