Bloodshed raises civil war fears
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraqi government imposed an indefinite citywide curfew Thursday as terrified residents of Baghdad braced for the aftermath of the war's deadliest day, a series of car bombings in a Shiite Muslim enclave that killed up to 160 ...
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraqi government imposed an indefinite citywide curfew Thursday as terrified residents of Baghdad braced for the aftermath of the war's deadliest day, a series of car bombings in a Shiite Muslim enclave that killed up to 160 people and wounded more than 200.
Many Iraqis feared this could be the tipping point for an all-out sectarian war.
In a televised address to his besieged nation, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged to hunt down those responsible for the bloodshed in the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad. Al-Maliki urged calm and warned of harsh tactics to deal with sectarian factions, but whether his Shiite-led security forces are able to prevent the spiraling of violence will be the main test of his fragile government.
The attacks came on the eve of a ceremony to commemorate the death of the father of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia keeps a firm grip on the densely populated warrens of Sadr City. The event was rescheduled for Sunday in the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf, where burials are planned for many of the victims from Thursday's bombings.
The rebel cleric and militia commander issued a statement from Najaf calling Sadr City residents "the lions of Iraq" and ordering his followers not to let further violence blight the anniversary of his father's death.
Earlier in the day, U.S. and Iraqi forces fought off a violent insurgent takeover attempt at the Shiite-led Ministry of Health in Baghdad. About 30 insurgents fired on the building for nearly two hours before fleeing when troops arrived, police and ministry officials said.
In a rare show of unity, Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni political leaders issued a joint statement condemning the attacks and demanding a review of al-Maliki's security plan for Baghdad. Critics have lashed out at al-Maliki, saying he has failed to rein in Shiite militias or aggressively crack down on Sunni insurgents. Both have engaged in violence. Civilian deaths reached a record level in October.
Sheikh Abdel Hadi al-Mohammedawi, head of al-Sadr's offices in west Baghdad, said the Mahdi Army has called for patience and self-control among its members, but he predicted individual acts of revenge not condoned by militia leaders.
"I believe civil war will happen now, though I pray to God it won't," al-Mohammedawi said. "The ones who conduct these attacks must realize that everybody will lose in the end. Everybody will attack everybody. Neighbors will attack neighbors."
At least four car bombs were detonated Thursday afternoon in a busy shopping district in Sadr City, followed by mortar fire in the same area, Iraqi police officials said. The officials added that a fifth explosives-laden vehicle was disabled.
By late Thursday, no group had claimed responsibility.
The Health Ministry, run by al-Sadr allies, put casualties at 160 dead, with more than 230 wounded. Officials from the Iraqi Interior Ministry issued lower figures of 130 killed and 201 wounded.
Almost immediately after the attacks, suspected Shiite rebels lobbed mortars at a Sunni mosque and a Sunni religious office. Explosions and gunfire could be heard throughout the capital late into the night.
Shiites vowed to break the curfew and head to Najaf to bury their dead today. Islamic custom calls for immediate burial.
Under the curfew, all roads in and out of Baghdad were closed until further notice. The airport also was closed.