Bush, Maliki Under Pressure As Iraq Violence Continues

US hopes for stabilizing Iraq were dealt a further blow yesterday as violence swept through Baghdad in revenge for Thursday’s deadly car bombings in Shi’ite Sadr City.

At least six cars are now known to have been used in the Sadr City market attacks, which involved three suicide car bombers and three unattended cars packed with explosives, one of which was discovered and successfully disarmed. The death toll from these bombings stands at 215, with a further 250 wounded.

On Friday, a triple car bombing in the northern city of Tal Afar, which also has a large Shi’ite population, left 23 people dead and 42 injured.

Despite appeals for calm from Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders in Iraq, angry Shi’ites have retaliated by torching Sunni homes, mosques and even worshippers.

The most shocking violence occurred in the Sunni section of the mainly Shi’ite neighborhood of Hurriya in Baghdad’s northwest, where militants seized six Sunnis leaving Friday prayers, drenched them in kerosene and burned them alive. Several houses in the area were also attacked and set alight.

Militias armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades attacked and set ablaze at least four Sunni mosques in Baghdad; another mosque came under heavy gunfire in Baquba, 37 miles north of Baghdad. Shi’ite militias also launched a barrage of mortar shells into the predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Adhamiya in northern Baghdad. Thirty-one people are confirmed dead from the latest violence.

Witnesses have claimed that men dressed in Iraqi police uniforms looked on as Shi’ite militias carried out attacks on Sunnis and did nothing to stop them.

Baghdad remains in lockdown after the Iraqi government issued an indefinite curfew banning vehicles and pedestrians from the streets. Baghdad International Airport and Basra’s airport and seaport also remain closed. Iraqi security forces have further cordoned off Sadr City, where members of the Shi’ite Mahdi Army patrol the neighborhoods of Hurriya and Yarmouk, in defiance of the curfew.

Moqtada al-Sadr, local ruler of Sadr City and the Mahdi Army, blamed al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein loyalists for Thursday’s devastating car bombings in Sadr City. He has demanded that Harith al-Dari, head of Iraq’s (Sunni) Muslim Clerics Association, immediately issue fatwas that forbid Sunnis from killing Shi’ites and associating with al Qaeda. Mr Dari is wanted by Iraqi authorities for suspected links to terrorist groups and now lives outside Iraq, yet he is still highly influential in Iraq’s Sunni community.

Meanwhile, it is likely that Thursday’s three-hour militia attack on the Shi’ite-controlled Ministry of Health, which immediately preceded the car bombings in Sadr City, had an element of revenge. Less than two weeks ago, Shi’ite militiamen dressed in police uniforms raided the Sunni-controlled Ministry of Higher Education and kidnapped over 100 people, some of whom remain missing.

US President George Bush has urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to share more power with the minority Sunni population to allay their fears of victimization under the majority Shi’ite government; this has fuelled much of the Sunni unrest since the US invasion in 2003 and enabled the infiltration of al Qaeda. Yet Iraqi Shi’ites are reluctant to share power and oil wealth with the Sunnis, after suffering centuries of oppression under minority Sunni rule, dating back to the Ottoman Empire.

Mr Maliki is being heavily pressured by the US to disband local militias, especially those that control sections of the Iraqi police and security forces. However, Mr Maliki depends on powerful local leaders like Mr Sadr and his followers to maintain his own balance of power against Shi’ite rivals in the government. After the latest attacks, local support for militias on both sides has also reportedly surged.

Mr Bush is due to meet with Mr Maliki in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Wednesday to discuss how the US can most quickly hand over control to Iraqi security forces and withdraw American troops.

Mr Sadr has warned that any meeting with Mr Bush would cost Mr Maliki the support of 30 legislators in the 275-member Iraqi Parliament, including Ministers in three cabinet positions, which could destabilize the government. Mr Sadr has repeatedly demanded the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

Mr Maliki’s supporters have insisted that he will meet with Mr Bush as planned.

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