BAGHDAD, Iraq – Leaders of Iraq’s rival factions held an emergency meeting Saturday and agreed to condemn the sectarian violence that has gripped the country over the past four days. But despite a two-day-old curfew in Baghdad and three neighboring provinces, at least 40 Iraqis were killed in scattered attacks.
After a largely quiet Friday, the attacks on a Shiite family in Baqouba, a funeral procession in Baghdad and a busy street in Karbala renewed fears that Iraq was headed for civil war. Soldiers and police in Baghdad will maintain a ban on vehicle traffic through today, authorities said. Baghdad International Airport was closed, and so were roads into and out of the capital.
Meanwhile, political leaders tried to reach a rapprochement before it was too late to stop the slide toward open warfare. Though Sunni Arab leaders pulled out of negotiations Thursday, by Saturday evening they had rejoined talks with Shiites and ethnic Kurds. With the encouragement of President Bush, who called politicians from all three sides to encourage them to seek peace, the faction leaders met for three hours.
When the Iraqi leaders came out of the meeting for a news conference broadcast on Iraqi television, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari solemnly removed his glasses and announced unequivocally that there would not be a civil war in Iraq.
The crisis erupted Wednesday, when unidentified attackers bombed the golden-domed Askariya shrine in Samarra, a site sacred to Shiites. In the four days since, militias affiliated with Shiite political parties have sought revenge by attacking or occupying Sunni mosques and detaining or killing worshippers. Sunni Arabs have responded by hastily forming local defense forces and conducting their own attacks.
A U.S. military spokesman disputed the media’s account of the crisis to date, saying 22 mosques had been attacked since the Samarra bombing, a considerably smaller number than the 120 reported by al-Iraqiya television on Friday. U.S. and Iraqi officials also said 119 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the fighting, but that number – also smaller than previous reports of up to 200 dead – did not include Saturday’s deaths.
The attacks were carried out despite an extraordinary daytime curfew that went into effect in Baghdad, Diyala, Babil and Salahuddin provinces on Friday. The curfew was due to be lifted in all four provinces this morning, but Baghdad will continue to ban vehicle traffic.
In the morning, near the predominantly Sunni Arab town of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, gunmen burst into a Shiite family’s house and killed 12 people.
In Karbala, a Shiite holy city some 50 miles south of Baghdad and not covered by the curfew, a car bomb killed at least seven people and injured 52.
And in Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on the funeral procession for an al-Arabiya television reporter killed along with two colleagues while covering the bombing in Samarra. One security guard was killed in the firefight, the network said. When mourners were returning from the cemetery, a car bomb ripped through an Iraqi military patrol that was escorting them, killing two soldiers and a police officer, news agencies reported.
Saturday saw a glimmer of political progress. Sunni and Shiite clerics prayed together at two mosques in Baghdad and jointly condemned the violence, and leaders from every important political group in the country drew up a list of issues to be negotiated.
Among the thorniest issues addressed at the talks was the role of the Iraqi security forces. Sunnis have accused the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, which controls the police, of allowing Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army to rampage through Sunni areas. The Sunnis said they would prefer to have their neighborhoods patrolled by army troops under the control of the Defense Ministry.