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Mother, children slain after fleeing Baghdad due to threats

They reportedly had cooperated with US forces

BAGHDAD -- Assailants slit the throats of a mother and her three children yesterday in southern Iraq, where the family had fled to escape threats that they had cooperated with the Americans.

The mother's sister was also slain in the savage attack, which occurred in an apartment in the southern city of Basra, police said. Five other family members were rescued before they bled to death.

Officials said the family had fled Baghdad for Basra after receiving threats because they had cooperated with US forces. The officials gave no further details and spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals by sectarian militias that have infiltrated Basra's police.

Sunni leaders, meanwhile, said 20 Sunnis who work for a government organization that maintains mosques and shrines of that Muslim sect were abducted in two areas of Baghdad. Sunni officials demanded the Shi'ite-led security forces do more to stop sectarian kidnappings and killings.

There were conflicting reports whether the employees of the Sunni Endowment were seized late Tuesday or yesterday. The organization announced it was suspending its work for a week to protest the kidnapping and demanded its employees be freed.

The head of the organization, a major institution among the country's Sunni community, blamed ``militias in official uniforms" for the wave of kidnappings. The choice of words suggested he was referring to Shi'ite militiamen who have infiltrated the defense and interior ministries and who Sunnis blame for killing civilians.

Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie said there would be no work at the endowment's offices for a week in protest.

``I call upon the president and the prime minister to set up checkpoints in tense areas to prevent the killings," he told reporters.

The kidnapping occurred as part of a wave of sectarian violence that escalated after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra in February and a July 1 car bombing that killed 66 people in the Shi'ite district of Sadr City.

In a joint statement yesterday, America's two top officials in Iraq deplored the surge in sectarian violence and called on the Iraqi people to unite against ``the terrorists and death squads."

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and General George W. Casey also called on Iraq's leaders ``to take responsibility and pursue reconciliation not just in words, but through deeds as well."

The statement reflected US disappointment that the national unity government, which took office May 20, has faltered in its attempts to win public trust, calm sectarian tensions, and persuade Sunni-led insurgents to lay down their weapons.

Instead, the situation in Iraq has gotten worse.

On Tuesday, the United Nations said nearly 6,000 civilians were slain across Iraq in May and June, a spike in deaths that coincided with rising sectarian attacks across the country.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, accused Al Qaeda in Iraq of targeting civilians because it is afraid to face Iraqi security forces. He vowed the attacks would not undermine his efforts toward national reconciliation.

But deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie, a Sunni Arab, blamed US and other coalition forces for much of the violence, saying their troops were responsible for about half the deaths due to ``raids, shootings, and clashes with insurgents."

``They came to protect the people and democracy and all the problems we have today are because of them," al-Zubaie said.

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