BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Gunmen killed nine members of two Shi’ite families in Baghdad on Sunday a day after militias raided a mixed neighbourhood and forced dozens of Sunni families to flee in a serious escalation of sectarian violence.
Officials and relatives of the victims said about 30 gunmen stormed a home in a mostly Sunni area in southwestern Baghdad and killed five brothers from one family after separating them from the women. A father and three sons from another family, all of them policemen, were also killed.
“The gunmen broke into the house. They locked the mother and the sisters in one room and killed the five brothers in another room,” a cousin, who identified himself as Haider, told Reuters. Haider, who spoke to the women after the attack, said the brothers were all Shi’ites.
Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Karim Khalaf confirmed the attack in Jihad neighbourhood and said he was unaware of the victims’ sectarian affiliation. A source at Yarmouk hospital said all victims were Shi’ites.
The attack came a day after gangs of Shi’ite militiamen burned homes and killed at least two people in broad daylight in the religiously mixed Hurriya district in western Baghdad, officials and witnesses said.
Dozens of Sunni families, including women and children, fled Hurriya on foot and in trucks at nightfall in one of the worst incidents of sectarian cleansing in the capital in weeks.
Interior Ministry sources said three headless bodies were found.
There were also reports of clashes on Sunday between Shi’ite militias and the Sunni Janabi tribe in the Amil area in southwestern Baghdad.
Iraq has been in the grip of a cycle of killings and reprisals pitting majority Shi’ites against once-dominant Sunnis since the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in February. U.S. officials warn sectarian violence threaten to tear Iraq apart.
Close to half a million Iraqis have fled their homes as cities and even neighbourhoods are carved up along sectarian lines. Many fear divisions could pave the way for a civil war.
As sectarian warfare engulfed the capital, outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the main architects of the U.S.-led invasion and a lightning rod for criticism of the war, made an unannounced visit to U.S. troops in Iraq. “The enemy must be defeated. General (John) Abizaid (U.S. Central Command Chief) said: ‘We can certainly walk away from this enemy but they will not walk away from us’,” Rumsfeld was quoted on the Department of Defense Web Site as telling troops in Anbar province, heartland of the Sunni insurgency.
A bipartisan panel in Washington exploring strategy alternatives to U.S. President George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq described the situation in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating”.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the invasion.
Bush, under pressure to change course in Iraq has distanced himself from some of the panel’s recommendations, which paves the way for a U.S. troop withdrawal in early 2008. More than 2,900 U.S. troops have died since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
While Maliki has welcomed the recommendations, Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s ethnic Kurd president, on Sunday called some of the proposals “dangerous” and an insult to Iraqi’s sovereignty.
Proposals include a more centralised control of Iraq’s vast oil wealth and embedding thousands more U.S. advisers in Iraq’s security forces to quicken their training.
Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters holding a handful of cabinet posts are boycotting the government until Bush announces a timetable for withdrawal, also condemned the report, saying it was “aiming at destroying and dividing us”.
Interior Ministry sources and witnesses in Hurriya, a neighbourhood with pockets of Sunnis and Shi’ites, said gunmen from the Mehdi Army militia loyal to Sadr were behind Saturday’s attack. Some 100 Sunnis who were forced to flee took refuge in schools and mosques in Amil district.
Witnesses said the attack was in apparent revenge for the killing last month of 202 Shi’ites in a multiple car bombing attack in Sadr City, a stronghold of Sadr, a partner in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government.
An old man wept and cried for revenge: “I call upon all Sunnis to carry guns and fight the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, who burned our houses and displaced us.”