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Violence Flares in Divided Baghdad

By Joshua Partlow and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; A01

BAGHDAD, July 10 -- A barrage of bombings and gunfire killed at least 40 people in Iraq on Monday in a burst of sectarian warfare a day after Shiite Muslim militiamen terrorized a Sunni Arab neighborhood in Baghdad.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on Iraqis to "unite as brothers" and stop the cycle of retaliatory violence.

But the killings that started Sunday morning -- with mobs of gunmen pulling Sunnis out of their cars and storming their homes in the neighborhood of al-Jihad -- spread to Shiite enclaves in the capital and other cities across Iraq.

Many in Iraq expressed fear that the recent attacks were pushing the country past isolated killings into civil war.

Two car bombs exploded Monday morning on a commercial street in the Shiite slum of Sadr City in Baghdad in apparent retribution for the killings of Sunnis the day before. The two bombs, within 10 minutes of each other, crumbled buildings, killed 11 people and injured 17 others, Col. Sami Jasim of the Interior Ministry said. The second explosion was aimed at a police patrol, a frequent target of attacks in recent months.

Then masked gunmen wearing civilian clothes set up a checkpoint in the violence-plagued Sunni neighborhood of Amiriyah, pulled seven passengers from a Kia minibus and shot them dead in the street, Interior Ministry Brig. Gen Mahmoud Nima said. Nima said that Iraqi army soldiers near the scene failed to intervene. Some Sunni politicians alleged Sunday that the killings in al-Jihad were the work of the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia, in concert with Iraqi police officers.

Violence also flared in the northern city of Kirkuk, where a suicide truck bomber drove into a Kurdish political party office and killed three people and wounded 20 others, Lt. Col. Shwan Abdullah of the Kirkuk police said. A short time later, a bomb detonated near a rival Kurdish party office in the city, wounding three people, he said.

"Our destiny is to work together in brotherhood to defeat terrorism and insurgency," Maliki, a Shiite, told the Kurdish regional parliament in northern Iraq, the Reuters news agency reported. "We have no choice but to defeat those who want to return us to the black days."

In al-Jihad, the residents who remained a day after the deadly rampage said they looked out onto ghostly quiet streets as Iraqi police and soldiers enforced a daytime curfew and cordoned off the neighborhood.

"It has been quiet since yesterday -- we have not heard a single bullet," said Hayder Emad, 26, a resident. "The people were running in the streets trying to buy what they need and hurrying back."

Ali Muhsin, 58, said his neighbors grabbed guns and stood sentry on their roofs, fearing another onslaught by militiamen. He sent his son to a town south of Baghdad to live with relatives and called him Monday to warn him not to return.

"I fear that someone will kill him," he said.

Muhsin said he worried that the Mahdi Army, controlled by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, remained close by. The area is not controlled by the Iraqi army, he said. "The security forces are not capable of maintaining security."

The killing on Sunday began as early as 7 a.m., residents said, but American troops did not respond until nearly four hours later, a U.S. military spokesman said. At a briefing for reporters Monday, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said that "at the time that this occurred, we were not in that exact location."

"And we responded when asked to by our [Iraqi] counterparts. When the request came in for additional forces to move there, we had some and we moved them there in concert with when we were asked to move," he said.

U.S. troops found 14 dead Iraqis in the neighborhood but not the "30 or 40 or more that was in the reporting that we heard going on," Caldwell said. An Iraqi police officer said that 57 corpses, plus those of three policemen, were taken to Yarmouk Hospital after the violence. Caldwell did not place blame for the killings on the Mahdi Army, but he acknowledged the problem of what he called "illegal armed groups."

"The civilians clearly are taking a heavy hit at the activities of these illegal armed groups through murder, intimidation, kidnappings, and everything else," he said. "And those are the groups that we're going after."

Mahdi Army officials denied involvement in the mass killings in al-Jihad. One militiaman said recent raids by Iraqi and U.S. troops against Mahdi Army mosques and homes had angered the group. He said that in his Baghdad neighborhood of Shula, Iraqi army and police are working with the militia to establish checkpoints and monitor streets, mosques and public markets.

"We don't think any stranger can attack Shula," said Ghazi Ahmed, the militiaman.

In some Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, religious leaders went door to door seeking volunteers to join self-defense groups and promised to distribute AK-47 assault rifles to those who didn't have them. Mahmoud al-Obaidi, a cleric at the al-Abaz mosque in Amiriyah, canvassed the neighborhood asking for one male volunteer from each household. He told residents to be ready to mobilize if mosques broadcast " Allahu Akbar " -- God is Great -- three times.

Meanwhile, closing arguments for the defense in the trial of ousted president Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants began without the presence of two defense attorneys, who were boycotting the trial until certain conditions are met, such as more security for their families and an investigation into the recent killing of a fellow defense lawyer.

But the court proceeded to hear arguments about the innocence of two peripheral co-defendants, Ali Daeem Ali and Mohammed Azawi Ali. They are accused of informing on residents in the Iraqi village of Dujail. The trial centers on charges that Hussein and his co-defendants orchestrated the killings of 148 Shiite villagers after an assassination attempt against Hussein in 1982.

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company