BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Scorched pavement, destroyed shops, burned out cars and four men shot in the head then hanged from electricity pylons, victims of revenge killings, awaited Shiite residents emerging from their homes in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum.
The scene, although gruesome, was not what many had feared Monday: That deadly explosions the previous night in Sadr City would ignite all-out civil war, pitting majority Shiites against minority Sunnis.
Two car bombers and four mortar rounds shattered shops and market stalls at nightfall Sunday when residents were buying groceries for their evening meal. At least 58 people were killed and more than 200 wounded.
A key to Monday’s relative peace was anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s refusal to be provoked. With thousands of his Mahdi Army militiamen ready to fight, the Shiite leader called for calm and national unity. It was the second time in less than three weeks that Iraqis stood at the precipice of civil war but pulled back.
Britain, the United States’ largest military partner in Iraq, showed its confidence Monday by announcing a 10 percent, about 800-troop, reduction by May.
“This is a significant reduction which is based largely on the ability of the Iraqis themselves to participate and defend themselves against terrorism, but there is a long, long way to go,” British Defense Secretary John Reid said in London.
The United States hopes to begin withdrawing some of its troops by this summer if a new Iraqi government is in place and judged sufficiently in control. But sectarian violence and political bickering has stalled the process.
In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush said insurgents were trying to ignite a civil war by escalating violence. “I wish I could tell you that the violence is waning and that the road ahead will be smooth,” Bush said in a speech at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies at George Washington University. “It will not. There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle, and we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come.” Iraq’s new parliament will convene for the first time Thursday, three months after it was elected, to begin the process of forming the next government.
Bomb blasts and shootings in Baghdad and north of the capital, many of them targeting Iraqi police patrols, killed at least 15 people Monday and wounded more than 40. They included a U.S. soldier who died in a roadside bombing, the military said. A U.S. Marine was reported killed Sunday in insurgent-plagued Anbar province.
The American deaths brought the number of U.S. military members killed to at least 2,308 since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Police and Sheik Amer al-Husseini, a senior aide to al-Sadr, said the four men shot and hanged in Sadr City were captured by members of the cleric’s militia. Police said they cut the bodies down and took them to a hospital morgue Monday morning.
“We know nothing about their nationalities but residents reported that they were arrested yesterday by Mahdi Army,” said police Lt. Laith Abdul-Aal. “Two of them were wearing explosive belts and two others had mortar tubes.”
Al-Husseini identified the men as three Iraqis and a Syrian.
Iraqi police manned checkpoints Monday at main entrances to Sadr City, and armed militiamen fanned out inside the neighborhood. Many people ventured out only to buy food. Under the watchful eye of armed militiamen, market vendors picked through the charred, twisted remains of their stalls to salvage what they could.
Abdel Karim al-Bahadli, 42, wept when he saw the devastation at the market close to his home. He blamed the extremist Sunni Takfiri sect of terrorist boss Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
“This is not resistance because there were no U.S. troops in the markets yesterday,” he said. “The Takfiris are only after Shiites. We will not be silent any more.” Sadr City residents had feared an attack like this one after al-Sadr’s fighters stormed out of the slum to take revenge on Sunni Muslims and their mosques after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Politicians scrambled Monday to keep a lid on violence. President Jalal Talabani said terrorists bent on civil war had taken advantage of a power vacuum caused by the delay in forming the government.
“It is the duty of the political groups to accelerate efforts to form the government, and the armed forces and security bodies should act swiftly to eliminate such crimes,” he said.
Al-Sadr, addressing reporters in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, appeared to absolve the larger Sunni community, saying: “Sunnis and Shiites are not responsible for such acts.” Instead, he blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq and U.S. forces.
Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie, head of the Sunni Endowment, the state agency responsible for Sunni mosques and shrines, called the Sadr City attack “a cowardly and criminal act.”
“There are some hands trying to add fuel to the fire for their own benefit,” he said on television. The attacks Sunday came just after political leaders said the new parliament will convene Thursday. The session will set in motion a 60-day deadline for the legislature to elect a president, approve a prime minister and sign off on his cabinet.