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Friday, November 24, 2006

Sadr plays his hand

Iraq Toll Rises; Shiite Militia Retaliates

Published: November 24, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 24 — Defying a government-imposed curfew, Shiite militiamen stormed Sunni mosques in central Iraq today, shooting guards and burning down buildings in apparent retaliation for a series of devastating car bombs that killed hundreds of people the previous day in a Shiite slum, residents and police officials said.

All day today, funeral processions wound through the crowded streets of the Sadr City section of Baghdad that is home to more than 1.5 million people, mostly Shiites.

As the death toll from those bombings rose above 200, gunmen drove through several neighborhoods in Baghdad and the nearby provincial capital of Baquba, taking aim at mosques with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades on the Muslim holy day, when many Iraqis go to mosques to pray.

The wreaking of vengeance unfolded while a powerful parliamentary bloc loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr threatened to boycott the government if Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki attends a meeting with President Bush scheduled for Wednesday in Jordan. The legislators said the American presence was the root cause of the spiraling violence in Iraq.

But it was Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, that Sunni residents blamed for the attacks today. From morning until afternoon, at least four mosques were attacked in a single mixed neighborhood in the capital. Two were completely destroyed, and at least five Sunnis were killed and 10 wounded, an Interior Ministry official said. Iraqi security forces were absent, unwilling or unable to stop the gunmen.

“I live near Akbar al-Mustafa Mosque, which came under attack by gunmen around 7 this morning,” said a man who gave his name as Abu Ruqaiya and lives in Hurriya, the Baghdad neighborhood where violence raged all day. “Around 3 in the afternoon, those gunmen bombed this mosque and destroyed part of it. They left only after American and Iraqi soldiers arrived.”

Some fighting continued into the evening, as gunmen in the neighborhood battled the invading fighters, the Interior Ministry official said. President Jalal Talabani urged calm at a news conference after an evening meeting of Iraq’s top leaders and said the defense minister had told him no mosques had been destroyed. Mr. Talabani also said he was postponing a weekend trip to Iran because the government had shut down Baghdad International Airport.

In the far north, a suicide car bomber and a suicide belt bomber detonated their explosives at an outdoor car market in the insurgent-rife city of Tal Afar, killing at least 20 people and injuring at least 42.

The bloodletting over the 24-hour period amounted to one of the worst spasms of violence since the Americans toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The wave of revenge attacks in Baghdad came despite a traffic ban the Iraqi government had imposed across the capital starting Thursday evening. Most of Baghdad remained quiet today, with children playing soccer in the empty streets, but the attacks nevertheless underscored the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi security forces in tamping down on violence that is widening the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide and pushing the country toward full-scale civil war. The assaults against Sunnis today evoked the rampages by Shiite gunmen that took place in the hours after a revered Shiite shrine was bombed by insurgents last February in Samarra.

The Sunni guerrillas can block the highways, but they cannot stop the Shia in or out of Baghdad. The Sadrists are the single most powerful block in Iraq.

Sadr has decided to confront the US, but in a clever way. If Maliki doesn't show up or Bush cancels, he's seen as the man behind the government. If he does, Maliki might as well travel back with Bush because he's a dead man in Iraq.

But Sadr knows if Maliki doesn't meet with Bush, any rational for staying in Iraq ends. No matter what any pentagon option or Baker report says.

posted by Steve @ 4:40:00 PM

4:40:00 PM

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