BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Fearful Iraqis spent sleepless nights guarding their homes and asking who would be next after gunmen burned mosques and houses in a Sunni enclave following the worst bomb attack since the U.S. invasion.
The city of 7 million was under a tight curfew for a second full day since Thursday’s bombing in which more than 200 Shi’ites died.
The government called for calm, desperate to avert the sort of sharp escalation in violence that followed an attack on a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in February. This time, many fear, such revenge attacks could push Iraq over the edge.
“Everybody is tense, everybody is expecting something may happen at any moment,” said Abu Marwah, 40, a Sunni Arab translator who spent much of the night on the roof of his house with his Kalashnikov at hand, keeping watch for militia attacks.
Exploding mortar bombs kept other Baghdad residents awake.
The president, prime minister and leaders from all sides were due to meet again later in the day to discuss security.
Four mosques and some houses were burnt in the small Sunni part of the mainly Shi’ite Hurriya area in northwest Baghdad, Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Salem al-Zobaie said on Friday.
Some 32 people were killed, police said, in attacks on the area by suspected Shi’ite militiamen, untroubled by a curfew enforced after 202 died in the Shi’ite stronghold of Sadr City.
A witness to Friday’s attacks in Hurriya, university teacher Imad al-Din al-Hashemi, said three women, three children and two men were badly burned but survived when gunmen threw petrol into their homes and set fire to the buildings.
Clashes and air strikes were reported by witnesses and a police source in Baquba, a tense religiously mixed city north of Baghdad. They said militants swept through the city and attacked a police centre, though no casualties were reported.
In a village in the same province, Diyala, a security source said the bodies of 21 Shi’ites, including women and children from an extended family, were found executed in their homes.
In Baghdad, Abu Marwah, who lives in the Jamia area of mainly Sunni west Baghdad with his family, said: “All the men in the area were on alert. We kept in touch with each other and we received information that militias were expected to attack. Of course we all had our Kalashnikovs.” He heard eight mortar bombs explode in the night and some gunfire.
Though proud of centuries of harmony, and inter-marriage, between Shi’ite Muslims and the Sunni minority dominant under Saddam Hussein, three years of bigotry and bloodshed have turned Baghdad’s rich mix of communities into a patchwork of fearful, heavily armed and mutually hostile, sectarian redoubts.
The White House called the violence since Thursday a “brazen effort to topple a democratically elected government”.
U.S. President George W. Bush, under pressure on Iraq after his Republicans were trounced at midterm elections this month, is due to meet Iraqi Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Jordan on Wednesday at what is shaping up to be a crisis summit.
But Maliki, beholden in parliament to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, finds himself in a dilemma.
Aides to Sadr, whose Mehdi Army has its powerbase in Sadr City where Thursday’s carnage enflamed anger at the U.S. forces, have threatened to quit the government if he meets Bush.
Bush aides indicated the meeting was still on. Maliki and Bush are expected to discuss how to give Iraqi forces more control, faster, to speed the prospect of America’s 140,000 troops going home. But Iraq’s police and army command little trust. Gunmen in uniform are blamed for a string of attacks.
President Jalal Talabani said he would leave for Iran on Sunday, a day later than originally planned because Baghdad airport was closed. He will seek help stabilising Iraq, though analysts question how much Iran or Syria can do at this point.
A spokesman for Talabani, Hiwa Othman, said on Saturday the plan had always been for key meetings in Tehran on Sunday and so the delay in departure should not have much impact on the trip.
The U.S. military said its troops killed 22 insurgents in two clashes just north of Baghdad.