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Monday, April 23, 2007

Al-Maliki denies civil war in Iraq - Independent Online Edition > Middle East

Al-Maliki denies civil war in Iraq - Independent Online Edition > Middle East:

Al-Maliki denies civil war in Iraq

By Thomas Wagner, Associated Press Writer

Published: 23 April 2007

Gunmen shot and killed 23 members of an ancient religious sect in northern Iraq yesterday after stopping their bus and separating out followers of other faiths, and at least 20 Iraqis died in car bombings in Baghdad, most in a double suicide strike against a police station in a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood.

Explosions also rocked the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad in an apparent mortar attack for the second consecutive day, sending black smoke billowing into the sky but causing no casualties, the US military said.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the leader of mostly Shiite Iraq, traveled to Egypt on Sunday at the start of a tour seeking help from the Arab world's Sunni-led governments. After meeting with Egypt's top two officials, al-Maliki said he told them to ignore widespread reports that his country is suffering "a civil or sectarian war."

Yesterday's bloodshed also came despite a Baghdad security plan that calls for 28,000 additional American troops, as well as thousands of Iraqi soldiers, most of whom will be deployed in the streets of the violent capital in an attempt to pacify it.

The small Yazidi sect, concentrated mostly around the northern city of Mosul, is primarily made up of ethnic Kurds who adhere to a Middle Eastern religion with ancient origins. Its followers worship a holy being shaped like a peacock that some Muslims and Christians equate with the devil, leading them to call Yazidis devil worshippers.

Armed men in several cars stopped the bus around 2 p.m, as it was carrying workers from the Mosul Textile Factory to their hometown of Bashika, which has a mixed Christian and Yazidi population. The gunmen checked passengers' identification cards, which identify Iraqis by religion, then asked all Christians to get off the bus, said police Brig. Mohammed al-Wagga.

They hijacked the bus with all the Yazidis still inside, and drove them to eastern Mosul, where they were lined up along a wall and shot to death execution-style, al-Wagga said.

After the killings, hundreds of Yazidis took to the streets of Bashika. Shops were shuttered and many Muslim residents closed themselves in their homes, fearing reprisal attacks. Police set up additional checkpoints across the city.

Bashika is about 80 percent Yazidi, 15 percent Christian and five percent Muslim.

A police spokesman for Ninevah province, where Mosul is the provincial capital, said the executions were in response to the killing two weeks ago of a Yazidi woman who had recently converted to Islam.

The woman had fallen in love with a Muslim man, then converted to Islam and ran off with him, said police spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf. Her relatives disapproved of the match and dragged her back to Bashika, where she was stoned to death, he said.

A grainy video showing gruesome scenes of the woman's killing was distributed on Iraqi Web sites in recent weeks, but its authenticity could not be independently confirmed.

The killings by Muslim extremists were an attempt to avenge the woman's death, Khalaf said.

Baghdad's dual suicide car attack occurred at about 10 a.m. in Baiyaa, a mixed Sunni-Shiite area of western Baghdad. The first driver raced through a police checkpoint guarding the station and exploded his vehicle just outside the two-story building, police said. Moments later, a second suicide car bomber aimed at the checkpoint's concrete barriers and exploded just outside them, police said.

The blasts collapsed nearby buildings, smashing windows and burying at least four cars under piles of concrete. Metal roofs were peeled back by the force of the explosions. Pools of blood made red mud of a dusty driveway.

An unidentified man with wounds to one eye and his hands staggered through the wreckage.

"All our belongings and money were smashed and are gone. What kind of life is this? Where is the government?" he exclaimed. "There are no jobs, and things are very bad. Is this fair?"

Iraqi police stations often are the target of attacks by insurgents who accuse the officers of betraying Iraq by working in cooperation with its US-backed Shiite government and the American military.

Police said 13 people died - five policemen and eight civilians - and that 82 were wounded: 46 policemen and 36 civilians.

Thick black smoke billowed up into the sky and ambulances raced to the location with sirens wailing as firefighters sifted through rubble, looking for bodies. Cranes lifted burned cars and huge pieces of broken concrete.

Residents surveyed damage to their homes, hauling away broken furniture and sweeping up shards of glass. Victims' relatives set up a tent outside the police station ahead of a three-day mourning period.

The bombings in Baiyaa also damaged homes and car service centers near the police station.

At least two mechanics working nearby were wounded by flying shrapnel and debris.

"I was thrown outside my shop by the huge blast, and I saw my colleague in the shop next to me lying on the ground motionless, with pool of blood beneath him," said Anmar Abdul Hadi, 20.

Another victim spoke by phone from a gurney at Yarmouk Hospital, where the wounded were taken. "I was cleaning a car at the garage where I work when suddenly an explosion took place and knocked me over," said Hussein Rahim, 22, who was wounded in the arm.

In addition to Baiyaa police officers, the station had been serving as the temporary headquarters for police from Dora, a neighborhood in southern Baghdad. Last month, a suicide truck bomber demolished the Dora station, killing at least 11 people.

A US Army officer said Sunday that the only way to stop suicide attacks in heavily populated areas such as Baghdad is for Iraqi forces, officials and civilians to agree to work together against terrorist cells hiding in neighborhoods.

"The unfortunate reality of suicide bombers is that there is no ... magic formula for solving that problem. There is no technological solution that will guarantee that we can prevent ... either a suicide bomber or a suicide car bomber from entering into the populated areas," said US Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is in charge of training Iraqi forces.

The only way for security to be significantly improved, he said, is for Iraq's leaders, soldiers, police and civilians "to come together and reach an agreement that they will not put up with these cells of terrorists that are hiding in the midst of the people."

His comment at a news conference in the Green Zone appeared to echo a message that US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had delivered to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government during a recent visit to Baghdad: Iraqis have US support, but their leaders must show they can bring the country together and avert a full-scale civil war.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, a parked car bomb exploded in the Sadiyah neighborhood, killing seven civilians and wounding 42, police said. A roadside bomb then struck a police patrol coming to check on the blast, killing one officer and wounding two others.

In all, at least 72 people were killed or found dead in Iraq on Sunday, including 24 bullet-riddled bodies and two brothers who were shot to death in the volatile city of Fallujah, a day after the chairman of the city's council was assassinated.

The US military also reported the deaths of three soldiers on Saturday.

One was killed and two others wounded in a rocket or mortar attack on their base southwest of Baghdad. Another was killed and three were wounded when a combat security patrol was attacked with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades in western Baghdad. The third died due to an unidentified non-combat cause that was being investigated.

US forces, meanwhile, targeted al-Qaida linked militants with an airstrike south of Baghdad, killing 15 suspects and detaining seven others, the military said. Ground forces later killed three suspected militants loading a vehicle carrying an anti-aircraft weapon.

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