Bush attempts diplomacy as 60 more killed in violence
President phones Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurd leaders
BAGHDAD -- Bombs and gunfire killed about 60 people as another daytime curfew yesterday failed to halt violence fueled by the destruction of a Shi'ite Muslim shrine.
In an unusual round of telephone diplomacy, President Bush spoke with seven leaders of Shi'ite, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish political parties in a bid to defuse the sectarian crisis unleashed by the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra on Wednesday.
Bush ''encouraged them to continue to work together to thwart the efforts of the perpetrators of the violence to sow discord among Iraq's communities," said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council.
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 the areas outside Baghdad but decreed an all-day vehicle ban today for the capital and its suburbs.
Still, the violence continued.
A car bomb exploded in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala, killing at least six people, hospital officials said. Gunmen broke into a Shi'ite home northeast of Baghdad and massacred 13 male members, police said.
Bodies of 14 Iraqi police commandos were found near their three burned vehicles near a Sunni mosque in southwestern Baghdad, police Major Falah al-Mohammedawi said. Two rockets slammed into Baghdad's Shi'ite slum, Sadr City, killing three people, including a child, and wounding seven, police said.
Two Iraqi security officers guarding the funeral of an Al- Arabiya television correspondent Atwar Bahjat were killed and four other people were wounded when a car bomb exploded as mourners left a cemetery in western Baghdad. 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 people were wounded in the shooting, police said.
At least 21 other people died in small-scale shootings and bombings in Baghdad and western areas of the city, according to police and hospital reports.
Gunmen also shot at two Sunni mosques in Baghdad yesterday, police said. And two rockets damaged a Shi'ite shrine late Friday in Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of Baghdad, police and witnesses said.
The crisis has distracted attention from today's deadline set by the kidnappers of American journalist Jill Carroll, abducted Jan. 7 in Baghdad. 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 United States met unspecified demands.
''There are no new developments on her case so far because we are busy with a lot of things right now," Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal said yesterday. ''We know about the deadline and we hope that we can reach her before they manage to kill her."
Faced with one of the gravest threats of the turbulent US presence in Iraq, American officials mounted a furious effort to get the political process back on track while Iraqi authorities defended their handling of the crisis.
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," 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."
After 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 reprisal 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 Jaafari's home. US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad also attended.
''[Friday] they were fighting each other," Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said. ''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, Jaafari said the parties agreed to repair all religious sites damaged in the latest violence and to compensate families of those who were killed. But Sunni politician Naser al-Ani said the agreement was not enough for the Sunnis to end their boycott of coalition talks.
Getting talks on a new government back on track is critical for the Bush administration plan to establish a broad-based government that can win the trust of Sunni Arabs, who form the backbone of the insurgency. With a new government in place, Washington hopes to begin withdrawing some of its 138,000 soldiers this year.