BAGHDAD, Iraq — A series of suicide attacks, car bombs and mortar barrages rocked Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 68 people and wounding scores as Iraq teetered on the brink of civil war. President Bush decried the violence between rival Muslim Sunni and Shiite sects and said Iraqis must choose between “chaos or unity.”
Iraqis have suffered through days of reprisal killings and attacks on Sunni mosques since bombers blew apart the gold dome of the revered Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra on Wednesday. The Iraqi Cabinet said at least 379 people had been killed and 458 wounded in reprisal attacks.
In the latest attacks, two explosions hit Shiite targets in northern Baghdad after sundown, killing at least 15 people and wounding 72.
Police officials said either a car bomb or a mortar hit the Abdel Hadi Chalabi mosque in the Hurriyah neighborhood, killing 23 people and wounding 55.
Mortar fire at the Shiite Imam Kadhim shrine in the Kazimiyah neighborhood on the opposite side of the Tigris River killed one and wounded 10.
A Sunni mosque in the Hurriyah neighborhood had been bombed before dawn Tuesday.
More sectarian violence from last week
The Tuesday night attacks were clearly a continuation of sectarian violence that erupted in the country after a Shiite shrine was bombed in the predominantly Sunni city of Samarra on Wednesday.
Earlier, five bomb attacks rattled the capital, killing at least 41 and wounding scores.
In Washington, Bush sidestepped a question about whether the surge in sectarian violence would affect his administration’s hopes to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
“Obviously there are some who are trying to sow the seeds of sectarian violence,” Bush said. “And now, the people of Iraq and their leaders must make a choice. The choice is chaos or unity, the choice is a free society, or a society dictated by evil people who would kill innocents.”
Separately, Vice President Dick Cheney challenged administration critics during a speech at an American Legion convention.
“Here in Washington, if any believe Americans should suddenly withdraw from Iraq and stop fighting al-Qaida in the very place they have gathered, let them say so clearly,” Cheney said. “If any believe that Americans should break our word and abandon our Iraqi allies, let them make it known.”
In Washington, Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Michael Maples said the sectarian violence stems from a core of Sunni Arab insurgents who can exploit “social, economic, historical and religious grievances.”
“Networks based on these relationships remain the greatest threat to long-term stability in Iraq,” Maples said.
Struggle to form new Iraqi government
Fears of civil war have been complicated by the continuing struggle to form a new Iraqi government. National security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie traveled to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the Shiite community’s most revered leader.
North of Baghdad, a blast badly damaged a Sunni mosque where the father of Saddam Hussein was buried in the family’s ancestral hometown, Tikrit.
The deposed leader’s trial resumed in Baghdad with prosecutors presenting a document they said was signed by Saddam approving the executions of more than 140 Shiites in southern Iraq after an assassination attempt in the 1980s.
The Iraqi Islamic Party said the Sunni Thou Nitaqain mosque in Baghdad’s northern al-Hurriyah neighborhood was destroyed Tuesday morning. Police said three people were killed and 11 wounded in the blast.
The Sunni organization blamed the Shiite-dominated government that, it said, “cooperates with the criminal hands that sabotaged God’s houses and lighted the fires of sedition.”
At a gas station in the mostly Shiite New Baghdad neighborhood, a suicide attacker joined a line of people waiting to buy kerosene before detonating the explosives strapped to his body, police and witnesses said. The blast killed 23 people and injured 51, Interior Ministry official Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi said.
In the same region, a car bomb targeting a police patrol killed five people and wounded 15 — many of them construction workers gathering to look for work, authorities said.
Another car bomb hit a small market opposite the Shiite Timimi mosque in the mostly Shiite Karradah neighborhood, killing six people and wounding 16, al-Mohammedawi said.
A roadside bomb targeting the convoy of a defense ministry adviser killed five soldiers and wounded seven in the eastern Zaiyona neighborhood, ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said. The adviser, Lt. Gen. Daham Radhi al-Assal, was not injured.
More soldiers killed
The U.S. military reported a U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire west of Baghdad on Monday. At least 2,292 members of the U.S. military have died since the war began, according to an Associated Press count.
In the south Tuesday, two British soldiers were killed in Amarah, 180 miles from Baghdad, the Defense Ministry reported in London. A witness said a car bomb targeted a British patrol and helicopters were seen taking away casualties.
The deaths raised the British toll in the Iraq conflict to 103.
The Iraqi army found nine bullet-riddled bodies, including that of a Sunni Muslim tribal sheik and his two nephews, off a road southeast of Baghdad, police and hospital officials said. The bodies were near two burned minibuses on the road from Baghdad to strife-prone Diyala province.
Al-Rubaie emerged from his meeting to say “the way to forming the government is difficult and planted with political bombs. We ask the Iraqi people to be patient, and we expect forming the government will take a few months.”
He also said the United Iraqi Alliance will not retreat from its choice of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister.
“We expect that our partners in this country will respect this choice ... taking into consideration the election results,” he said.
That balloting gave the Shiite bloc a majority of parliamentary seats but not enough to rule alone.
Al-Jaafari determined to form government
Al-Jaafari, the interim prime minister, has been criticized by opponents for weak leadership that has allowed militias to carry out reprisals on Sunnis and to infiltrate the police. Al-Jaafari’s links to Muqtada al-Sadr, who helped secure his nomination for another term, has alarmed some Shiites and others who fear the rise of the radical young cleric.
He said Tuesday during a visit to Turkey that the violence will not derail efforts to form a unity government.
“The incidents in Iraq and terrorist activities will never negatively affect the government’s work or prevent the political process from being successful,” he said.
On Tuesday, wailing relatives collected the bodies of loved ones killed in last week’s sectarian violence.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that more than 1,300 Iraqis had been killed since then, but Tuesday’s Cabinet statement described that account as “inaccurate and exaggerated.”
The Post cited figures from the Baghdad central morgue, but an official there told The Associated Press that as of Sunday night they had received only 249 bodies tied to the violence. The Post figure appeared high based on police and hospital reports from the major population centers at the time of the attacks.
More than 60 relatives of the dead — many of them women dressed in black, beating their chests while wailing in grief — assembled there with empty coffins to take away their dead.
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