BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – A car bomb attack on a Shi’ite holy city, the slaying of a family of 12 and a gunbattle near the home of a top Sunni Muslim clerical leader heightened fears on Saturday that Iraq may be pitching toward civil war.
At least eight were killed and 31 wounded in a car bomb attack on a market in Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, and a bomb at the Baghdad funeral of a well-known Iraqi journalist killed security men, her employer Arabiya television and police said.
Gunmen killed 12 members of one family in their home near Baquba, a religiously mixed city northeast of the capital.
Relatives said most of the dead were Shi’ites but three were Sunni; mixed marriages are not uncommon in Iraq.
Details of the shooting around the Baghdad home of the head of the Sunni Muslim Clerics Association, Harith al-Dari, were confused; speaking live from the house by telephone on Arabiya, he blamed police from the Shi’ite-led government: “This is civil war declared by one side.”
An aide said two of Dari’s nieces, aged 4 and 15, were hurt.
In the same area, the funeral cortege of Arabiya’s Atwar Bahjat came under fire, the station said, adding one person was killed and four wounded. The journalist was killed on Wednesday in Samarra, where the suspected al Qaeda bombing of a Shi’ite shrine sparked reprisal attacks on Sunnis.
On the way back from the burial, the convoy was struck by a bomb that killed two guards, police said. Arabiya said several people were killed in the explosion.
Saturday’s violence followed overnight clashes around Sunni minority mosques in Baghdad, despite a second day of emergency curfew in the capital; 200 people have died around Baghdad alone since the destruction of Samarra’s Golden Mosque three days ago.
“This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people,” said U.S. President George W. Bush, who hopes an end to violence can let him bring troops home. “The coming days will be intense.”
Police said gunmen wearing the black of Shi’ite militia attacked Sunni mosques in two areas of Baghdad overnight, including the Abu Hanifa shrine, the city’s most sacred Sunni site; they were eventually driven off, police said.
Sunni clerics say dozens of their mosques were damaged at the height of the violence on Wednesday and Thursday before the curfew imposed on Friday dampened down the fighting.
In Kerbala, along with Samarra home to one of the four holiest sites for Shi’ite Islam in Iraq, police said a remotely detonated car bomb blasted a busy street market.
Near the northern city of Kirkuk, a Katyusha rocket damaged a Shi’ite shrine overnight, police sources said.
Near Baquba, military sources said Iraqi troops killed four suspected Sunni insurgents and arrested 17.
Islamist Shi’ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has tried to reassure Iraqis that their government was doing everything possible to contain the crisis, saying security would be tightened and holy sites protected.
Rival Shi’ite leaders, all involved in government, deny sending their respective militia forces against Sunni targets; but the shows of force may have strengthened their hands in U.S.-sponsored negotiations on a national unity coalition.
The Shi’ite fury that has stalled the talks by prompting a Sunni boycott is greater than any provoked by al Qaeda and other Sunni rebel attacks that have killed thousands since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime three years ago.
Untested, U.S.-trained Iraqi police and troops blocked roads across Baghdad. U.S. patrols, widely resented by both sides, kept a low profile. The new Iraqi forces are drawn heavily from rival militias, and their loyalty may be tested in any battle.
As on Friday, the streets of Baghdad were largely deserted, although the curfew, which lasts until 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) applies only to vehicle traffic.
Calls for Muslim unity from preachers at Friday prayers had seemed to calm tensions but senior government officials told Reuters they were still concerned tempers could get out of hand, especially if Shi’ite clerics were unable to contain the anger of their majority community against Sunni insurgents.
The main Sunni bloc pulled out of coalition negotiations that followed its participation in a December election; it accused Shi’ite leaders of fomenting the revenge attacks.
Iraqi and U.S. officials blamed the bloodless but symbolic attack on al Qaeda, saying it wants to wreck the project for democracy in Iraq; al Qaeda in turn accused Shi’ites of carrying out the Samarra bombing to give an excuse for attacks on Sunnis.
Abroad, there has been concern that Iraqi sectarian violence could inflame the entire Middle East if it gets out of hand.