BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – Iraqi authorities extended a daytime curfew on Baghdad on Friday in an apparent effort to prevent violence after one of the bloodiest weeks this year.
State television announced a four-hour traffic ban in force every Friday of late to curb car bomb attacks on mosques during weekly prayers would be extended through most of the day.
One worshipper was killed by a bomb as he went in to midday prayers at a Sunni mosque in Khalis, 70 km (45 miles) north of the capital. Two others were wounded, police said.
U.S. commanders are speaking about a looming fight to the finish in Baghdad between Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s two-month-old unity government and Sunni Arab rebels with links to al Qaeda and ousted president Saddam Hussein.
The U.S. ambassador has warned that a greater threat may be the mounting sectarian violence between minority Sunnis and the Shi’ites empowered by the U.S. invasion which ousted Saddam.
That has brought a risk that millions of ordinary but almost universally armed Iraqis may be dragged into all-out civil war.
U.S., Iraqi and international leaders have sounded alarms this week as new data showed tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in fear of death squads since a government of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds was formed in May and that some 6,000 civilians may have been killed in violence in two months.
A gun and grenade attack on a market just outside Baghdad on Monday and a suicide car bombing to the south of the capital killed 120 people this week.
U.S. data showed attacks on security forces in Baghdad has averaged 34 a day over several days, compared to an average of 24 in recent months. Baghdad morgue alone has taken in 1,000 bodies this month.
The regular Friday ban on traffic in Baghdad from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. has been extended to 7 p.m. for the day, state media said. An overnight curfew operates daily from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Describing the capital as a “must-win” for both the rebels and the government, U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell conceded on Thursday that Maliki’s month-old security clampdown in Baghdad had achieved only a “slight downtick” in violence, with civilian deaths steady.
“They will do an all-out assault against the Baghdad area,” he said. “We have seen the movement of terrorist elements into the Baghdad area. We have seen the flow occurring.”
A U.S. raid on an al Qaeda suspect near Baquba, northeast of the city, led to the death of one militant and injuries to several civilians, the military said in a statement.
Local police and doctors said six civilians, including a girl aged 3 were killed.
U.S.-led forces have also been cracking down on Shi’ite warlords, many of them apparently rogue elements of pro-government militias that Maliki has promised to rein in.
British forces in the Shi’ite southern city of Basra said they arrested two men in separate operations early on Friday.
“We strongly suspect them of terrorist activities … including executions, kidnappings, attacks on Coalition forces bases and patrols and attacks on Basra civilians,” Major Charlie Burbridge, a British military spokesman, said.
He declined to say which group they belonged to but said they were “significant” figures, albeit less senior than a man seized on Sunday who fellow militants said was the commander of the Mehdi Army Shi’ite Islamist militia in Basra.
British officers say elements of the Mehdi Army, widely blamed by Sunnis and secular Shi’ites for running death squads against them, are not under the control of its nominal leader, radical young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers hold a number of important ministries in Maliki’s government.
Maliki goes next week to Washington, where President George W. Bush hopes for progress in Iraq that may help at November’s congressional elections and make it easier to withdraw troops. But Iraqi politicians and diplomats increasingly question the resolve within the government and parliament to set aside partisan aims to stop a bloody break-up of the oil-rich state.