BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Iraq’s defense minister warned of the risk of an endless “civil war” as sectarian violence flared again on Saturday, killing over 40, as Sunni and Shi’ite leaders made joint pleas for a halt to four days of bloodshed.
With the gravest crisis since the U.S. invasion threatening his plan to draw down 136,000 troops, U.S. President George W. Bush made a round of calls to Iraqi leaders on all sides urging them to work together to break a round of attacks sparked by the suspected al Qaeda bombing of a Shi’ite shrine on Wednesday.
Those leaders then met, joined by the U.S. ambassador. After three hours of talks, they appeared live on television to affirm their commitment to U.S.-sponsored efforts to forge a national unity government and call for an end to sectarian strife.
Earlier, as a traffic ban around the capital was extended to Monday following attacks on Sunni mosques and car bomb in a Shi’ite holy city, Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said: “If there is a civil war in this country it will never end.
“We are ready to fill the streets with armored vehicles.”
Iraq’s 232,000-strong, U.S.-trained forces have few tanks but U.S. forces are standing by, commanders said. The loyalties of the largely untried new police and Iraqi army could be tested in any clash with militias from which many were recruited.
The Pentagon said no Iraqi unit can fight on its own yet but about 40,000 troops could lead in combat with U.S. support.
Police said 14 commandos were killed near where black-clad gunmen attacked a Sunni mosque overnight in Baghdad; 12 people from one family were shot dead in their home in what police said was a sectarian attack on Shi’ites northeast of the capital.
Eight died in a car bomb attack in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, three were killed by a mortar round in a Shi’ite district of Baghdad and three others by a shell apparently aimed at a Sunni mosque in the city, police and local officials said.
Dulaimi called for calm, saying 119 people had been killed since the bloodless bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra at dawn on Wednesday. Tallies of reports from police suggest the toll is at least twice that, including more than 40 on Saturday.
Three security men were killed in separate gun and bomb attacks on the funeral cortege in western Baghdad of an Iraqi journalist killed as she reported in Samarra on Wednesday.
The White House said after Bush’s calls to Baghdad: “He encouraged them to continue to work together to thwart the efforts of the perpetrators of the violence to sow discord.”
After the talks, Shi’ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, flanked by top Sunni and Kurdish politicians, said: “The Iraqi people have one enemy; it is terrorism and only terrorism. There are no Sunnis against Shi’ites or Shi’ites against Sunnis.
“All — or most — expressed the importance of accelerating the political process without any delay,” Jaafari added.
Sunni leader Tareq al-Hashemi called the meeting “a first step in the right direction” but his Accordance Front would not rejoin formal coalition talks immediately; it announced a boycott in protest at what it called the Shi’ite-led interim government’s role in fomenting reprisal attacks on Sunnis.
“We agreed … we need to form a government as quickly as possible,” Hashemi said, but the Sunni Front wanted progress on its complaints about violence before taking part in the talks.
U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been criticized by Shi’ite leaders this week for pushing to have Sunnis brought into government, said a unity government would help avert the risk of civil war — a risk he said had diminished on Saturday.
“There is still a danger,” he told reporters. “But the risk of going to war because of the … bombing has diminished.”
In a lengthy interview on Iraqi state television, he assured Iraqis that Washington was ready to help in any way: “The United States has a lot invested in Iraq. Iraq’s failures are ours.”
Earlier, aides to fiery Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr met Sunni religious and political leaders and made televised joint calls for Muslim unity; Sadr denies his black-clad Mehdi Army militiamen have been involved in attacks on Sunni mosques.
Rival Shi’ite leaders also deny sending militias into the streets; but shows of force strengthen them in negotiations.
Shi’ite fury exceeds any provoked by Sunni attacks that have killed thousands since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime; senior figures fear some Shi’ites may stop heeding calls from their religious leaders for restraint.
Iraqi and U.S. officials blamed the bloodless but symbolic attack on Samarra’s Golden Mosque on al Qaeda, saying it wants to wreck the project for democracy in Iraq; al Qaeda accused Shi’ites of carrying it out as 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.