BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari canceled a meeting Thursday with Iraq’s top political leaders after they agreed to mount a campaign to deny him another term in a bid to jump-start stalled talks on a new government drawing in the main ethnic and religious blocs.
Al-Jaafari had called the meeting to discuss ways to resolve the political standoff and contain a surge of sectarian killing that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Bloodshed claimed at least 17 more lives Thursday. The violence included two bomb attacks in mostly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and an assault by gunmen on an Iraqi checkpoint north of the capital.
The talks on a new government broke down last week when Sunni parties pulled out in protest against attacks on Sunni mosques triggered by the Feb. 22 bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in the central city of Samarra. Hundreds were killed in the sectarian fury that followed.
They included 45 Sunni preachers and mosque employees, according to Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie, head of the government’s Sunni Endowment, which takes care of Sunni mosques and religious shrines. He told a news conference Thursday that 37 Sunni mosques were destroyed and 86 damaged by grenade, rocket or bullet fire. Six others remained in the hands of Shiite militiamen, he said.
Yet another Sunni cleric was gunned down as he left a mosque after dawn prayers Thursday in Basra, in the southern Shiite heartland. It was not clear whether al-Samaraie included the cleric in his count.
The former U.N. human rights chief for the country said abuses are as bad now as they were under Saddam Hussein. Extrajudicial killings and torture are soaring, and morgue workers are being threatened by both government-backed militiamen and insurgents not to properly investigate deaths, he said in an interview in Sydney, Australia.
“Under Saddam, if you agreed to forego your basic right to freedom of expression and thought, you were physically more or less OK,” said John Pace, who last month left his post as director of the human rights office at the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. “But now, no. Here, you have a primitive, chaotic situation where anybody can do anything they want to anyone.”
The violence continued Thursday with the bombing of a vegetable market in Zafaraniyah, a mostly Shiite southeastern Baghdad neighborhood.
The blast during the busy morning shopping period killed at least eight people and wounded 14, said police Lt. Bilal Ali Majid. Police evacuated the market after finding a second bomb.
Another bomb ripped through a minibus driving in Sadr City, the east Baghdad Shiite ghetto, killing the driver and a passenger. Four bystanders were hurt, said police Col. Khazim Abbas.
Earlier, gunmen attacked a joint police-army checkpoint about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Samarra, killing six soldiers and four policemen, said police Lt. Qassim Mohammed. The attackers set fire to the bodies before fleeing the area, he said.
The violence has complicated talks to form a broad-based government, which U.S. officials consider essential to lure Sunni-Arabs away from insurgents so coalition forces can start drawing down later this year.
Al-Jaafari’s office gave no reason for calling off Thursday’s meeting with major political parties. “The cancellation of this meeting is a regrettable thing because such meetings are essential under the current situation,” said Mahmoud Othman, a leading figure in Parliament’s Kurdish bloc.
On Wednesday, leaders of three parties, including Sunnis, Kurds and the secularists of ex-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, agreed to ask the main Shiite bloc to withdraw al-Jaafari’s nomination for prime minister and put forward another candidate. Officials of all three groups confirmed the plan but spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The Shiites won 130 of Parliament’s 275 seats in December elections, giving them the largest bloc of lawmakers and the first chance to form a government, but not enough to govern without partners.
Al-Jaafari won the nomination by a single vote in a Feb. 12 ballot among Shiite lawmakers, defeating Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi in large part due to the support of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr’s militiamen were believed behind many of the attacks against Sunni mosques last week, and the prospect of a prime minister in debt to the young radical has alarmed mainstream politicians, including some in the Shiite alliance.
Bombings, gunfire and mortar blasts killed 47 more people Wednesday.
A U.S. soldier assigned to Multinational Division-Baghdad died in a non-combat related incident Wednesday, the military said. No details were provided. At least 2,295 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
In court Wednesday, Saddam Hussein took sole responsibility for ordering the trial of 148 Shiites who were eventually executed in the 1980s. But he insisted this was no crime as they were suspected of participating in an assassination plot against him. The trial was then adjourned until March 12.