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Shi'ites, Sunnis unleash reprisals

Burnings reported as Iraqi strife deepens

BAGHDAD -- In a wave of reprisal killings, Shi'ite militiamen torched or sprayed gunfire at Sunni mosques in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq yesterday, defying a government curfew and propelling the country further toward full-scale civil war.

The exacting of revenge for the deaths of more than 200 Shi'ites on Thursday came as powerful politicians linked to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened to pull out of Iraq's coalition government if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attends a scheduled meeting with President Bush next week in Amman, Jordan.

A boycott by loyalists of Sadr, on whom Maliki relies for political support, could upend Iraq's fragile unity government.

Yesterday's attacks illustrated Iraqi security forces' inability to rein in violence, at a time when US leaders want them to take greater responsibility for the country's security, a vital benchmark for any strategy to withdraw US troops.

By last night, at least 65 people were reported killed in attacks across Iraq.

Throughout the day, rumors of new atrocities committed against Sunnis floated across Baghdad, including one in which six Sunnis were said to have been doused with kerosene and torched to death in Hurriyah. But two local imams denied such an attack took place.

There was no shortage of confirmed incidents. In the mixed Hurriyah neighborhood, Shi'ite militiamen torched at least five Sunni mosques on Islam's holiest prayer day, police and residents reported. Other mosques were attacked by gunmen firing bullets from the rooftops of nearby houses, witnesses said.

In one mosque, militiamen detonated a cooking gas cylinder. In another, they declared that it was now a husseiniya, a Shi'ite mosque, and posted pictures of Sadr, whose stronghold of Sadr City was attacked Thursday.

At least 18 people were killed yesterday and 24 injured in the mosque attacks in Hurriyah, said Adil Mahmoud, a physician from al-Nouman Hospital in the nearby Adhamiya neighborhood.

"They started attacking with grenades and RPGs," said Abu Abdallah, the imam at one of the attacked mosques, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. "Then shooting started from nearby houses. Then, they entered and burned the mosque before they left." Abdallah, interviewed by telephone, asked that his mosque not be named. "I might be killed," he said.

In the Ghazaliya neighborhood, at least eight mortar shells hit a mosque run by the Association of Muslim Scholars, one of the most outspoken defenders of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority since the US-led invasion. The house of worship is one of Baghdad's best known.

Northeast of the capital, Shi'ite gunmen in Baqubah opened fire at a Sunni mosque during prayers yesterday, killing a mosque guard, said imam Osama al-Ani. Near the northern city of Kirkuk, a roadside bomb exploded in front of one of the biggest Sunni mosques in the area, injuring five people and damaging the building, according to police.

Meanwhile, in the northwest city of Tal Afar, two bombs exploded near a car dealership, killing 22 people and wounding more than 40 others, police said.

The scale of yesterday's revenge attacks was smaller than the spree of killings by Shi'ite militiamen in the aftermath of the bombing of the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra in February. That bombing triggered cycles of revenge that further ruptured the bonds between Iraq's two major sects.

US troops bolstered their patrols, flying helicopters over Sadr City and operating checkpoints. One helicopter destroyed a rocket launcher manned by a Shi'ite crew that had fired six rockets into the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, near the Abu Hanifa mosque, one of the most revered Sunni shrines in Baghdad, the military said.

Yesterday's attacks unfolded in the aftermath of the bombs, mortars, and missiles that hit Sadr City on Thursday, the deadliest single assault on Iraqi civilians since the US-led invasion began in 2003. The death toll in those attacks rose to more than 200 yesterday.

Thousands of mourners, flanked by minivans carrying wooden coffins, paraded solemnly through Sadr City yesterday, paying last respects before the procession drove to the southern Shi'ite holy city of Najaf to bury the dead.

Later, in an address after the midday prayer, members of Sadr's political party denounced the US military, saying its presence was the reason for Iraq's escalating violence. They demanded a US withdrawal or, at least, a timetable for the troops to leave, a demand echoed by Sadr in his Friday sermon at his mosque in the southern city of Kufa.

In previous periods of tension, Sadr loyalists have threatened to walk out of the government. Still, the current climate is unlike anything Iraq has experienced since the invasion. The attacks on Sadr City appeared to embolden Sadr and his followers, as they try to capitalize on Thursday's carnage that Shi'ite leaders, including Maliki, have blamed on Sunni Arab insurgents.

As long as such attacks continue, and as long as Iraqi security forces are ineffective in providing security, Sadr can justify the existence of his Mahdi Army militia.

"If the prime minister did not give up his intention to meet Bush the criminal in Amman we will suspend our membership at the council of representatives and the government," Salih al-Ighaeli, head of Sadr's bloc in parliament, told a solemn crowd gathered on the street in front of Sadr's headquarters.

Ali Adeeb, a member of parliament and close Maliki aide, said the Sadr camp was trying to apply pressure tactics, but that the meeting would take place as planned.

The meeting between Bush and Maliki comes at a politically sensitive moment for both leaders. Bush is under pressure from Democrats who have won control of both the House and Senate to come up with a viable strategy to tamp down Iraq's violence and open the way for US troops to come home.

As the sectarian divide within his government widens, Maliki is under US pressure to disarm the Shi'ite militias, a step the US military believes is needed to tame the sectarian violence. But the very people who control the militias, such as Sadr, are key political figures in Maliki's government, capable of his downfall.

Yesterday's reprisal attacks underscore how powerful the Mahdi Army and other militias have become in Iraq, operating above the law, spreading violence even under an indefinite 24-hour lockdown of the capital.

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