Civil War Fears Persist In Iraq After Bombing Of Shiite Holy Site

In hopeful sign, Sunnis appear set to rejoin talks on forming new government with Shiite rivals.

Nearly a week after the bombing of a Shiite shrine, Iraq continues to teeter on the edge of civil war. On Monday (February 27) authorities lifted a three-day curfew in Baghdad that was imposed to curb the violence that has claimed more than 200 lives since last week’s bombing of the Askariya shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shiites, in the mostly Sunni city of Samarra.

But a mortar attack killed four people shortly after the lifting of the curfew, according to a Reuters report. A call from President Bush over the weekend asking the warring factions to come together hasn’t stopped the bloodshed that a U.S. ambassador acknowledged had brought Iraq “to the brink of civil war.”

Overnight curfews remained in place across the rest of the country. But despite the restrictions, rival factions fought near a Sunni mosque in eastern Baghdad on Sunday, and a bomb exploded in the bathroom of a Shiite mosque in Basra, killing three people.

Iraq’s defense ministry said security forces have killed 35 “terrorists” and detained 487 others since suspected al Qaeda bombers destroyed the mosque. “Things are getting better,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said, according to Reuters. “The Iraqis came to the brink of civil war as a result of the attack on the shrine. The Iraqi leadership came together and rose to the occasion, and that’s a good thing.”

The violence is a major setback for the Bush administration, which has been touting December’s free elections as proof that the country is turning the corner to democracy (see “Amid Sporadic Violence, Iraqis Go To Polls For Historic Vote” ).

The administration had been putting pressure on Shiite leaders to invite the minority Sunnis into a national unity government in the hopes of quelling the deadly Sunni-led insurgency. But on Thursday the main Sunni bloc announced a boycott of negotiations in protest of the attacks on its mosques, attacks launched in retaliation for the Samarra bombing.

“It’s a time of testing for the Iraqis,” Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”
“They’ve stared into the abyss a bit, and I think they’ve all concluded that further violence, further tension between the communities, is not in their interest.”

In a hopeful sign, on Monday Sunni Arab politicians were set to rejoin talks to form a new government with their Shiite rivals if Shiites returned mosques seized during last week’s wave of attacks and agreed to some other, unspecified demands, according to reports.

Amid the violence, the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made another plea for peace on Sunday, again asking his supporters to avoid attacking holy sites. Sadr, 31, whose militia is blamed for many of the attacks on Sunni sites, charged that the U.S. is using Saddamists, Baathists and other enemies of Iraq to spark a civil war because the United States wants to split the nation, according to an Associated Press report.

“Do you want to cavort with the occupiers?” asked Sadr, referring to Americans, as thousands chanted, “No, no to the occupiers! No, no to Satan!” The increasingly influential young cleric, a harsh critic of the U.S. occupation, continued: “Do not assault the houses of God.
Love each other and be brothers so our country will be stable, safe and independent from the occupation. We want to get the occupiers out of the country.”

Sadr’s followers won 30 of the 275 seats in the new Iraqi parliament in December’s elections.

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