BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Gunmen and bombers killed 30 people in Baghdad on Tuesday, including 14 Shi’ite religious workers after a powerful Iraqi Shi’ite leader urged President George Bush to strike harder at Sunni rebels to avert civil war.
Gunmen killed the 14 employees of a Shi’ite religious foundation in the capital, while officials said three car bombs killed 16 people and wounded 25 in a separate attack near a fuel station in a religiously mixed area in southern Baghdad.
The civilian employees for the Shi’ite Endowment, a foundation that oversees religious sites and mosques, were killed when their bus was ambushed, Salah Abdul Razzaq, a spokesman for the organisation, told Reuters. “It’s clear that this crime is aimed at stoking sectarian strife among Iraqis. The terrorists are trying to portray these crimes as a sectarian conflict,” he said.
Razzaq said 14 employees were killed and eight wounded when gunmen forced the bus to stop on a highway in Qahira district.
Interior Ministry sources said gunmen first set off a car bomb and then sprayed the bus with bullets. The sources put the toll at 15 employees dead and seven wounded.
The attack came a day after Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric and head of the biggest party in Iraq’s government, SCIRI, met Bush in Washington as Iraqi and U.S. officials struggle to contain violence pitching the country toward all-out civil war.
Iraq is gripped by tit-for-tat sectarian killings between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and many Iraqis fear their oil-rich nation passed the point of no return into sectarian division after the destruction of a Shi’ite shrine in February.
Last month, gunmen attacked a vehicle of the Sunni Endowment near the southern city of Basra, killing one local official and three of his bodyguards.
In a clear sign of American alarm at escalating violence, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and the commander of U.S. forces implored Iraqis to break a cycle of violence which they said would destroy the country. Last month, more than 200 Shi’ites were killed in the worst bombing since the U.S. invasion.
Hakim, former leader of his party’s armed militia wing, denied accusations by Saddam Hussein’s once-dominant Sunni minority that majority Shi’ites were stoking sectarian violence. He put the onus on Washington to take tougher action against insurgents. “The strikes they are getting from the multinational forces are not hard enough to put an end to their acts,” he said. “Eliminating the danger of civil war in Iraq could only be achieved through directing decisive strikes against Baathist terrorists (and Islamist groups) in Iraq,” he said in a speech after meeting Bush.
Bush, his Iraq policy under growing criticism even from former allies, said he and Hakim had discussed a need for Iraqi leaders to “reject the extremists that are trying to stop the advance of this young democracy”.
Bush met Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki last week and is due to meet Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi later this month as he seeks a new approach to a deepening crisis that could upset the entire Middle East.
On Wednesday, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker is to offer Bush more proposals on stabilising Iraq and reducing the U.S. presence.
These could include U.S. troops taking a backseat to Iraqi forces and seeking help from neighbouring Iran and Syria.