Sunni mosque bombed as Iraqi tanks deploy in Baghdad

Mon Feb 27, 3:56 PM ET

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) - Iraqi tanks deployed in Baghdad to pacify the city after an eruption of sectarian violence, but the bombing of a Sunni mosque and a mortar attack shattered the relative calm.

Four people were killed and 15 wounded in the bomb attack outside a Sunni mosque in eastern Baghdad as the faithful were leaving evening prayers, security officials said.

The attack was the latest strike against Iraq's ousted Sunni elite since Shiite mobs unleashed a wave of vengeance against the embittered minority after a revered Shiite shrine was blown up north of Baghdad last Wednesday.

Also Monday, a mortar shelling killed four people and wounded 14 others in a Shiite neighborhood, while two people were killed by gunmen who opened fire on a garage in Baquba, east of the capital, officials said.

Ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, meanwhile, called upon all Iraqis to unite and praised the role played by top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani in trying to curb the sectarian violence.

On the eve of the resumption of his trial for crimes against humanity, Saddam called "for unity at all levels to stop those who want to trigger sedition and division", his lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi said in a statement.

The latest bloodshed came as Iraqi authorities lifted a daytime curfew and positioned tanks in certain regions of Baghdad as they sought to defuse the crisis that had pushed Iraq to the precipice of civil war.

It was unclear whether the latest violence would strain efforts to lure Sunni parties back into talks on forming the country's next government after they bolted negotiations last Thursday in anger over the attacks on their community.

Sunni participation in government is seen as crucial to ending the community's insurgency, which has plunged Iraq into chaos since US forces toppled Saddam's regime in 2003.

Before Monday's mosque bombing, the main Sunni political bloc, the National Concord Front, indicated it would return to talks if Sunni religious sanctuaries that it claimed were seized by Shiite militias were returned to them.

"I have given a complete list to Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari of the Sunni mosques that are under Shiite control. If this is done, we will return to the negotiating table," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the Sunni alliance.

In Baghdad, there were signs of normality as both cars and pedestrians again clogged the streets after the lifting of a curfew and a 24-hour vehicle ban imposed in the wake of the violence that killed more than 120 people.

However, a three-hour extension to the usual seven-hour night curfew remained in place in the capital and the three central provinces of Salaheddin, Babil and Diyala, officials said.

General Abdel Aziz Mohammed, the defence ministry's chief of operations, announced tank deployments in parts of Baghdad, and warned that soldiers were now ordered to arrest anyone carrying weapons illegally.

The move appeared to be aimed at cracking down on Shiite mobs suspected of targeting Sunnis in retribution for Wednesday's bombing of the revered shrine in Samarra, north of the capital.

But the lurking fear of last week's sectarian killings continued to be felt as people hesitated to send their children to schools.

"Fear is still the master of the situation," said Ali Adnan, a 27-year-old Sunni engineer whose father was briefly kidnapped amid Shiite reprisals against Sunnis.

Iraq's national security adviser Muwaffak al-Rubaie announced that 10 people, including four security guards, had been arrested in connection with the bombing of Samarra's golden domed shrine.

Rebuilding the shrine will take at least five years, Iraq's Housing and Construction Minister Jassem Mohammed Jaafar said Monday, while the United Nations volunteered to help in the effort.

Iraqi radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia was accused of attacking Sunnis, told reporters in his home town of Najaf he had returned early from a trip to Iran to assert control over the militia, while denying it was responsible for the violence.

Meanwhile, Saddam, whose trial was set to resume Tuesday, has ended a hunger strike after fasting for 11 days, his lead lawyer Dulaimi told AFP.

"I met with my client for seven hours on Sunday. At our request he had earlier ended the hunger strike he had been on for 11 days ... ," Dulaimi said, adding that the defence team may return to the court proceedings Tuesday after boycotting it for a month.

Saddam and seven co-accused face the death penalty if found guilty.

US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said Iraq's interior ministry had information on the whereabouts of American journalist Jill Carroll, abducted on January 7 by armed men. A deadline set by her kidnappers to kill Carroll if their demands were not met passed Sunday with no news.

Khalilzad said that he was told that Carroll was still alive.