Baghdad Vehicle Curfew Puts Hold on Violence

An Iraqi policeman stands guard as hundreds of worshipers from the Basra, Amarah and Nasiriyah regions gather for Friday prayers. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari warned preachers to avoid
An Iraqi policeman stands guard as hundreds of worshipers from the Basra, Amarah and Nasiriyah regions gather for Friday prayers. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari warned preachers to avoid "inflammatory rhetoric" in their sermons. (By Nabil Al-jurani -- Associated Press)
By John Ward Anderson and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 4, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 3 -- A daytime ban on driving in Baghdad on Friday apparently helped curb, at least temporarily, an outbreak of violence that has roiled the country since a revered Shiite Muslim mosque was bombed 10 days ago.

Interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, who has been criticized for what some call his government's weak response to the violence, announced the 6 a.m.-to-4 p.m. vehicle curfew late Thursday, expressing concern that people attending Friday prayers at local mosques could be targeted by insurgents and others seeking to foment strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Since the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra, more than 1,000 people have been killed in violence between the sects.

Although the curfew did not prohibit people from venturing outside, streets in the capital were largely deserted. Iraqi police and soldiers manned checkpoints, children played soccer on the roads, the faithful walked to neighborhood mosques, and some local shops remained open.

"We think the curfew was important," said Ahmed Mohammed Salih, 40, who owns a grocery in Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood. "At least we were able to feel safe while we were praying."

"I think they should keep imposing it every Friday till the situation calms down," said Samir al-Ani.

Jafari, who has been under mounting pressure from Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties to withdraw from the contest to become Iraq's next prime minister, faced additional criticism Friday from within his own coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. Jafari was nominated by the Shiite alliance -- which won 130 seats in Dec. 15 elections, the largest bloc in Iraq's new parliament -- by a one-vote margin two weeks ago, but he has not been able to forge a broad-based, multiparty coalition.

Sheik al-Yaqubi, the spiritual leader of the Fadhila Party, a member of the alliance, released a statement criticizing Jafari and other politicians "for their failure to save the country from the mess it is in and their inability to form a government, maintain security and start the reconstruction of the country."

In announcing the curfew late Thursday, Jafari warned preachers to avoid "inflammatory rhetoric" in their Friday sermons, saying that anyone who incited violence or hatred would face "severe measures."

At the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad, Sheik Sadrudeen Qabanchi told worshipers that there were "three yeses" and "three nos."

"They are yes to political justice, to independence and unity," said Qabanchi, who often speaks for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite religious party that is a powerful member of the United Iraqi Alliance and the current governing coalition. "The 'nos' are no to dictatorships, no to foreign intervention, no to sectarianism and exclusion of others."

While Friday's curfew helped stanch the bloodshed -- there were only sporadic reports of violence around the country -- insurgents staged a deadly attack Thursday night against a power station and brick-making factory near the town of Nahrawan, just east of Baghdad, killing as many as 25 people, police said. Most of the victims were Shiites, they said.

"Dozens of armed men, who operate in Diyala province, entered the town at 7 p.m.," said Maj. Abdul Aziz Sadoun, of the Baghdad police. "They first attacked and destroyed the main power plant in the town, killing four people. Then they went to the brick factory and killed the people working there," slaying at least 21, Sadoun said. Other reports put the death toll at 19.

[On Saturday, a bomb exploded at a minibus terminal in a southeastern Baghdad suburb, killing five people and injuring 24, the Associated Press reported.]

On Friday, a spokesman for the southwestern command of the Iraqi border police, Sadoun Jabery, announced the capture of a Saudi member of al-Qaeda who has been charged with involvement in an attack on an oil installation in Saudi Arabia last week.

The suspect, Abdullah Salih al-Harbi, was captured in the Samawah desert,near the Saudi border, as he was trying to enter Iraq, Jabery said. He added that that Harbi admitted during interrogation that he had entered the country with five others and that they were traveling to Mosul, in northern Iraq, to join other al-Qaeda members. The other five were not apprehended and are being hunted, Jabery said.

Special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company