Iraq leader struggles with sectarian violence, criticism ahead of Bush summit

Saturday, November 25th 2006, 7:25 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) Iraq's Shiite prime minister, struggling to prevent sectarian violence from sending Iraq into full-fledged civil war, is facing strong criticism from top Shiite and Sunni-Arab leaders alike as he prepares for a summit with President Bush next week.

On Saturday, a prominent Sunni religious leader warned that Iraq's escalating sectarian violence will spread throughout the Mideast unless the international community withdraws support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

``I call on the Arab states, the Arab League and the United Nations to stop this government and withdraw its support from it. Otherwise, the disaster will occur and the turmoil will happen in Iraq and other countries,'' said Sheik Harith al-Dhari, who heads the Association of Muslim Scholars.

Last week, Iraq's Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant against al-Dhari, saying he was wanted for inciting violence and terrorism.

On the other side of Iraq's sectarian divide, Shiite politicians loyal to the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have threatened to boycott parliament and the Cabinet if al-Maliki goes ahead with the planned summit in Jordan on Wednesday and Thursday, although the White House said the meeting was still on.

The political bloc, known as Sadrists, is a mainstay of support for al-Maliki.

Sadrist lawmaker Qusai Abdul-Wahab blamed U.S. forces for Thursday's deadly attack on Sadr City because they failed to provide security. Suspected Sunni insurgents killed 215 people in the Shiite slum with mortars and five car bombs in the deadliest attack of the war.

On Saturday, a suicide car bomber attacked a checkpoint near Fallujah, killing a U.S. soldier and three Iraqi civilians, and wounding nine civilians and an American service member, the coalition said.

The Iraqi dead included two children and adult, leading coalition spokesman Marine Lt. Col. Bryan Salas to say the Sunni-led insurgency in Anbar province ``continues to demonstrate its complete lack of concern for'' civilians.

In western Iraq, a U.S. Marine died from wounds sustained while fighting in Anbar province on Friday, the military said.

As Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to the neighboring Sunni country of Saudi Arabia on Saturday to seek help in calming Iraq down, Iraq's sectarian violence shifted to Diyala province north of Baghdad, where gunmen broke into two Shiite homes and killed 21 men in front of their relatives, police said. U.S. and Iraqi forces also killed 58 insurgents during fighting in the same region.

Iran, the top U.S. rival in the region, had planned its own summit Saturday, inviting the presidents of Iraq and Syria in what was seen as a bid to assert its role as a powerbroker in Iraq. Syria did not respond, perhaps to avoid annoying the United States, and Iraq's president said he could not get to Iran before Sunday at the earliest, because the international airport was closed to commercial flights following the Sadr City attacks.

Iraq's government also imposed a 24-hour curfew on Baghdad's 6 million residents, but said people would be allowed to leave their homes Sunday. Vehicles are expected to be banned another day.

In Diyala province, a hotbed of Iraq's Sunni-Arab insurgency, gunmen raided two Shiite homes late Friday, police said. The attack targeted members of the al-Sawed Shiite tribe in the village of Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, according to a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his own security, as officials often do in the increasingly volatile province.

The gunmen broke into the both houses as their large extended families slept, marched everyone outside, lined up the 21 men and shot them to death the women and children watched, said police.

Police could not reach the remote village to collect the bodies and take them to a morgue until Saturday, police said, adding that they do not known whether the attack was motivated by sectarian hatred or a tribal dispute.

In other parts of Diyala, a largely rural area of farms and orchards, police killed 36 insurgents and wounded dozens of others in clashes Saturday, police said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces also conducted several raids north of Baghdad, killing 22 insurgents and a civilian, and destroying a factory used to make roadside bombs, the military said.

Baghdad was quieter than it had been on Friday, when rampaging militiamen burned and blew up four mosques and torched several homes in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Hurriyah, witnesses and police said. Iraqi soldiers at a nearby army post failed to intervene in the assault by suspected members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia or subsequent attacks that killed as many as 25 Sunnis, said police Capt. Jamil Hussein.

The U.S. military said Saturday that Iraqi soldiers securing Hurriyah found only one burned mosque and were unable to confirm residents' and police accounts that six Sunni Arabs were dragged from Friday prayers and burned to death.

On Friday, al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric, urged al-Dhari, the Sunni leader, to issue a religious edict condemning Sunni attacks on Shiites.

In an apparent response, Al-Dhari said during his news conference in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday that his Association of Muslim Scholars has repeatedly condemned the killing of Iraqi Muslims and attacks on their homes and mosques.

Al-Dhari, an outspoken critic of the government and the U.S. occupation, alleged that the Shiite-led government was using the 24-hour curfew as a way to carry out attacks against Sunnis, but he urged Iraqis not to be lured into more violence.

``Be patient and practice steadfastness and don't be lured into this sedition that aims to destroy'' Iraq, he said.