BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Two bombs blasted a Baghdad area that is a stronghold of Shiite militia fighters on Monday, a day after gunmen stormed through a Sunni area and killed over 40 in a dramatic escalation of sectarian violence in the city.
Twelve people were killed and 62 wounded, police said, in the blasts in east Baghdad, 200 meters (yards) apart, near a telephone exchange in the Talbiya district. It is a bastion of the Mehdi Army militia of radical young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Several police sources said two car bombs caused the blasts, several minutes apart. One official said the second explosion was a mortar but others said both blasts, by the roadside in a busy neighborhood, appeared to have been triggered remotely.
Sadr’s group rejected accusations by minority Sunni leaders and police that it was behind killings in the mainly Sunni Jihad district of west Baghdad on Sunday, when bands of gunmen set up roadblocks and hauled people with Sunni-sounding names from cars to shoot them. They also killed others in streets and homes.
Those killings, the worst of their kind yet seen in the city, came after a car bomb attack on a Shiite mosque in Jihad on Saturday evening and were followed by a double car bombing at another Shiite mosque late on Sunday that killed 19.
Although an edgy calm returned overnight, the cycle of violence, including a handful of mosque attacks on Friday, has raised new fears that Iraq is drifting toward all-out sectarian civil war despite the formation of a national unity government.
Gunfire rattled across two Sunni neighborhoods overnight.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has launched a national reconciliation plan to end the bloodletting between his fellow Shiites and the once-dominant Sunni Arabs.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, appealed for unity: “We are today on the edge of a slippery slope,” he said on Sunday.
Sadr, whose supporters have waged two rebellions against U.S. forces in Iraq, blamed Sunday’s violence on a “Western plan aimed at sponsoring a civil and sectarian war between brothers.”
Maliki has vowed to disband militias, some tied to parties in his government, that are carving Baghdad into sectarian no-go areas. But he faces an uphill struggle as most, including the Mehdi Army, have powerful allies inside the ruling coalition.
At the court trying toppled leader Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity, one of his less well-known co-defendants was in the dock as the defense prepared final arguments.
Saddam and the six other accused, as well as the ex-president’s main lawyers, were absent as Ali Daei, a minor Baath party official, was brought in.
It was unclear whether the others stayed away in protest at the killing of a member of the defense team last month or because they were not required at the hearing.
The defense counsel, who accuse sectarian militias of killing colleague Khamis al-Obaidi, had said they might boycott the trial or seek an adjournment.