BAGHDAD -- Bombings and shootings soared by 40 percent in the Baghdad area in the past week, the US military said yesterday.
An American general said extremists were preparing ``an all-out assault" on the capital in a decisive battle for the future of Iraq.
Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric issued his strongest call yet for an end to Shi'ite-Sunni bloodletting, urging all Iraqis to wake up to the ``danger threatening the future of the country" and stand ``side by side against it."
US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said there had been an average of 34 attacks a day involving US and Iraqi forces in and around the capital since July 14 -- up sharply from the daily average of 24 registered between June 14 and July 13.
``We have not witnessed the reduction in violence one would have hoped for in a perfect world," Caldwell told reporters. ``The only way we're going to be successful in Baghdad is to get the weapons off the streets."
Caldwell said insurgents were streaming into the capital for ``an all-out assault against the Baghdad area."
``Clearly the death squad elements, the terrorist elements, know that Baghdad is a must-win for them," he said. ``Whoever wins the Baghdad area, whoever is able to bring peace and security to that area, is going to set the conditions to stabilize this country."
But much of the bloodshed has been carried out by Shi'ite militias seeking retribution for attacks by Sunnis -- including organized insurgents, religious extremists, and Sunnis not affiliated with resistance groups but fearful of Shi'ite gunmen.
The result is a pattern of tit-for-tat vendetta killings that is difficult to stop by military action or political overtures to Sunni insurgent leaders.
With thousands fleeing areas where their sect is in the minority, Iraqis fear Baghdad is being transformed into a Sunni west and a Shi'ite and Christian east -- divided by the Tigris River that flows through the center of the city.
Alarmed by the crisis, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani issued a rare statement, saying that the time has come for ``all those who value the unity and future of this country" to ``exert maximum efforts to stop the bloodletting."
Sistani, a longtime voice of moderation, urged Iraqis against ``falling into the trap of sectarian and ethnic strife," which he said will only delay the departure of foreign troops.
``I repeat my call today to all Iraqis of different sects and ethnic groups to be aware of the danger threatening the future of the country and stand side by side against it," he said.
Caldwell's comments were among the most frank by a senior American military official about the grave crisis facing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's two-month-old national unity government.
US officials have long pointed to relative peace in many of Iraq's 18 provinces, dismissing the insurgency as a problem limited to Baghdad and sparsely populated Sunni Arab areas to the west and north.
However, Baghdad is the country's major transportation hub, the center of political and economic power, and home to more than 20 percent of the population. Its religiously and politically mixed population makes it a natural battleground for control of the country.
``Baghdad is a must-win not only for the prime minister, but for Al Qaeda in Iraq," Caldwell said. ``Without Baghdad's centralized access to power brokers, Baghdad's large, diverse population, its financial resources, the terrorists elements will lose here in this country."
With the stakes high, Maliki last month unveiled a much-heralded security plan for Baghdad, including up to 50,000 police and soldiers on the streets, more checkpoints, and raids in neighborhoods where violence is high.