BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Fifty-three people were killed in Baghdad in the 24 hours since the bombing of a major Shi’ite shrine sparked the worst sectarian violence the country has seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein, police said on Thursday.
Gunmen sprayed a Sunni mosque in the city of Baquba, northeast of the capital, killing one person in the latest of dozens of such incidents that have left religious and political leaders scrambling to halt a descent into all-out civil war.
Most of the people killed in Baghdad were Arab Sunnis who were attacked at mosques, police said.
Three journalists working for Al-Arabiya television were found shot dead after being attacked while filming in Samarra, where the bloodless but highly symbolic bombing of the Golden Mosque at dawn on Wednesday provoked widespread protest.
In the bloodiest apparent reprisal for the attack on one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest site, men in police uniform seized 12 Sunni rebel suspects, including two Egyptians, from a prison in the mainly Shi’ite city of Basra and killed 11 of them.
President Jalal Talabani summoned leaders of all sides to a summit at 10:30 a.m. (0730 GMT) after the bombing provoked outrage among majority Shi’ites that surpassed the anger caused by thousands of killings by Sunni militants since U.S. forces toppled Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government three years ago.
One man just stood silently inside the gutted Abdel Rahman mosque in central Baghdad. A veiled woman said she saw assailants throw grenades at the Sunni mosque and then open fire and set it alight. It was one of several badly damaged overnight.
U.S. President George W. Bush, whose diplomats and military commanders are pressing Shi’ite leaders to accept Sunnis in a national unity government after they took part in an election in December, urged Iraqis not to rise to the bait of what U.S. and Iraqi officials called an al Qaeda attempt to fuel civil strife.
“Violence will only contribute to what the terrorists sought to achieve,” he said in a statement, as 130,000 U.S. troops stood by to back up Iraq’s new security forces and keep order.
A policeman guarding a Sunni mosque in the southern Shi’ite city of Diwaniya was killed in an attack by Shi’ite militants. Three Sunni clerics were among those killed on Wednesday.
The United Nations Security Council, rarely able to find a common voice on Iraq since its bitter divisions over the U.S. invasion in 2003, sounded a note of alarm in calling on Iraqis to rally behind a non-sectarian government.
“The members of the Security Council understand the anguish caused by the attacks but urge the people of Iraq to defy its perpetrators by showing restraint and unity,” it said.
“We don’t know what could happen in the next few days,” said Mohammed Tariq, standing in a long line outside a bread shop in Baghdad as residents hurried home after the government declared three days of mourning that will keep businesses closed. “I will buy as much as I can because of the security situation.”
Washington wants stability to help it extract its forces but Shi’ite political leaders renewed sharp criticisms of its calls for them to give Sunnis key posts in government, with one party leader accusing the U.S. ambassador of encouraging the bombers by supporting Sunni demands for a share of power this week.
Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, accused the bombers, who dressed as policemen, of trying to derail talks on a national unity coalition: “We must…work together against…the danger of civil war,” he told Iraqis in a televised address.
The Shi’ites’ reclusive and ageing senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani made a rare, if silent, television appearance that underlined the gravity of the crisis. He called in a statement for protests but restraint as protesters outside his office in Najaf chanted: “Rise up Shi’ites! Take revenge!”
Since U.S. forces toppled Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government in 2003, Sistani has helped hold in check anger many Shi’ites feel against al Qaeda and other Sunni militants as the Shi’ite majority tastes power after years of oppression.
Sunnis accuse police of running death squads against them and some powerful Shi’ites, buoyed by success in December’s election, have said only Sistani has prevented more violence.
Militiamen loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr patrolled streets in Baghdad and clashed in Basra and elsewhere with Sunnis. A Sadr aide said: “If the Iraqi government does not do its job to defend the Iraqi people we are ready to do so.”
Sadr himself also called for national unity.
Talks on the government’s composition have exposed divisions among Shi’ite leaders, with Sadr gaining influence, and mixed responses to the crisis may reflect jockeying for power.
After gunmen attacked offices of his party in Baghdad and Basra, Sunni political leader Tareq al-Hashimi of the Iraqi Islamic Party said: “We will pursue anyone who attacks Sunnis.”
“For the Shi’ites…this is a major assault comparable to an attack on Mecca for all Muslims,” said Hazim al-Naimi, a political scientist at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University. “It could push the country closer to civil war.”
Amid the calls for calm, government-run Iraqiya television included in its evening schedule a graphic music video hailing 9th-century Shi’ite leaders’ battles against Sunni dominance.