Iraq’s defence minister warned of the risk of an endless “civil war” as sectarian violence flared again on Saturday, killing over 40, and Sunni and Shi’ite leaders met to try to halt four days of bloodshed.
With the gravest crisis since the U.S. invasion threatening his plan to withdraw 136,000 troops, U.S. President George W. Bush made a round of calls to Iraqi leaders on all sides urging them to work together to break a round of attacks sparked by the suspected al Qaeda bombing of a Shi’ite shrine on Wednesday.
Those top leaders then met for talks aimed at getting plans for a national unity government back on track — film of the meeting, attended by the U.S. envoy, was broadcast live on state television in a clear effort to defuse sectarian tensions.
“If there is a civil war in this country it will never end,” Defence Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said earlier as a traffic ban around the capital was extended to Monday following attacks on Sunni mosques and car bomb in a Shi’ite holy city.
“We are ready to fill the streets with armoured vehicles.”
Iraq’s 232,000-strong, U.S.-trained forces have few tanks but U.S. forces are standing by, commanders said. The loyalties of the largely untried new police and Iraqi army could be tested in any clash with militias from which many were recruited.
The Pentagon said no Iraqi unit can fight on its own yet but about 40,000 troops could lead in combat with U.S. support.
Dulaimi called for calm, saying 119 people had been killed since the bloodless bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra at dawn on Wednesday. Tallies of reports from police suggest the toll is at least twice that, including more than 40 on Saturday.
UN envoy Ashraf Qazi offered help in ending the crisis.
The White House said after Bush’s calls to Baghdad: “He encouraged them to continue to work together to thwart the efforts of the perpetrators of the violence to sow discord.”
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Shi’ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari were shown on state television meeting some 25 leaders of the main Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish parties.
A spokesman for Jaafari said they would discuss forming a national unity government, but a senior official in the main Sunni bloc, which pulled out of U.S.-sponsored government talks in protest at the violence, said the discussions aimed only at forming a committee to find a way to end the present violence.
U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been criticised by Shi’ite leaders this week for pushing to have Sunnis brought into government, said a unity government would help avert the risk of civil war — a risk he said had diminished on Saturday.
“There is still a danger,” he told reporters. “But the risk of going to war because of the … bombing has diminished.”
In a lengthy interview on Iraqi state television, he assured Iraqis that Washington was ready to help in any way: “The United States has a lot invested in Iraq. Iraq’s failures are ours.”
Earlier, aides to fiery Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr met Sunni religious and political leaders and made joint calls for Muslim unity; Sadr denies his black-clad Mehdi Army militiamen have been involved in attacks on Sunni mosques.
Police in the capital said they found the bodies of 14 police commandos near one of three Sunni mosques that police said were attacked overnight by gunmen wearing black.
A car bomb killed eight people and wounded 31 at a market in the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad.
Near Baquba, police said gunmen killed 12 members of one family in what they said was a sectarian attack on Shi’ites.
Mortars fell on Shi’ite Sadr City in Baghdad, killing three people in one house, a Sadr aide said. Three others were killed in north Baghdad by a mortar apparently aimed at a Sunni mosque.
Three security men were killed in separate gun and bomb attacks on the funeral cortege in western Baghdad of an Iraqi journalist killed as she reported in Samarra on Wednesday.
Rival Shi’ite leaders deny sending militias against Sunni targets; but shows of force strengthen them in negotiations.
Shi’ite fury exceeds any provoked by Sunni attacks that have killed thousands since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime; senior figures fear some Shi’ites may stop heeding calls from their religious leaders for restraint.
Iraqi and U.S. officials blamed the bloodless but symbolic attack on Samarra’s Golden Mosque on al Qaeda, saying it wants to wreck the project for democracy in Iraq; al Qaeda accused Shi’ites of carrying it out as an excuse for attacks on Sunnis.
Abroad, there has been concern that Iraqi sectarian violence could inflame the entire Middle East if it gets out of hand.