BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – Baghdad authorities on Monday lifted a three-day curfew imposed on the city after the worst bombing since the U.S. invasion in 2003, but nerves were frayed on fears of a new wave of blood-letting.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was due to fly to Iran for talks amid growing calls in Washington to engage Iran and Syria to help stop Iraq sliding into civil war. Washington accuses Syria and Iran of fuelling the violence.
The New York Times said a draft report to be debated by the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and which is preparing eagerly awaited proposals on a new direction in Iraq, would urge an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative to include direct talks with Iran and Syria.
The group’s recommendations will be sent to the White House, which is considering a change in strategy in Iraq to allow it to start pulling out some of its 140,000 troops.
Britain, America’s main ally in Iraq, said on Monday it hoped to withdraw thousands of troops by December 2007, while Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said the last Italian troops would leave next month.
British Defence Secretary Des Browne’s forecast was in line with previous statements by British military officials, who spoke in August of hopefully halving troop levels by mid-2007.
King Abdullah of Jordan, who will host a summit in Amman between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President George W. Bush this week, said “something dramatic” must come out of the summit because Iraq was “beginning to spiral out of control”.
As Baghdad’s curfew was lifted, people rushed to stock up on food as rumours swirled that the capital was about to be locked down again. Maliki’s office denied any such plans.
Thursday’s multiple bombing in the Shi’ite militia stronghold of Sadr City killed 202 people and drew comparisons to the February bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in its potential to fuel sectarian hatred and reprisal attacks.
Aides to Shi’ite radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr repeated their threat to pull out of the national unity government if Maliki meets Bush this week and if he fails to improve security and basic services. Maliki is politically dependent on Sadr.
Gunmen attacked Sunni Arab neighbourhoods on Friday and Shi’ites were targeted in attacks in provinces north and south of the capital. Rumours of more revenge attacks have been rife despite the curfew, which was punctuated by mortar attacks on various neighbourhoods of Baghdad. “I didn’t send my children to school today because of these rumours. People say these militias are distributing uniforms and they are going to make fake checkpoints today in Baghdad,” said Abu Marwah, a 40-year-old translator.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Arab party, said tens of people were killed in Sunni areas during the curfew by gunmen in uniforms, but there was no independent confirmation.
Washington has focused its efforts on training and empowering Iraq’s security forces but many Sunni Arabs suspect they are infiltrated by Shi’ite militias they hold responsible for thousands of death squad killings. The United Nations said last week around 120 people were being killed a day, most of them in Baghdad and many tortured, bound and shot — the hallmarks of death squad executions.