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Shiites Warn of Government Withdrawal

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 24 — As the death toll from a series of devastating car bombs in a Shiite district here rose today to more than 200, a powerful legislative bloc loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr threatened to withdraw from the government if Iraq’s prime minister attends a scheduled meeting with President Bush in Jordan next week.

Militia members shot at and burned Sunni mosques in central Iraq today in apparent retaliation for the bombings on Thursday, Interior Ministry officials said. At least two Sunni mosques were burned in Baghdad, while a mosque in the provincial capital of Baquba was shot at by gunmen.

Meanwhile, other attackers destroyed the minaret of a Shiite mosque in Baquba, an ethnically mixed and violent city, using explosives or projectiles, the officials said.

The legislators loyal to Mr. Sadr met in an office in Sadr City, the neighborhood hit by the explosions on Thursday, and angrily denounced the American military, saying the presence of the foreign forces was galvanizing the violence roiling Iraq. Also today, in the far north, a suicide car bomber and a suicide belt bomber detonated their explosives in crowded areas in the volatile city of Tal Afar, killing at least 20 people and injuring at least 42.

The carnage over the 24-hour period amounted to one of the worst spasms of violence since the Americans toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Though the Iraqi government maintained a tight curfew across the capital today, apparently fearful that events could spiral into full-scale civil war, hundreds of mourners poured into the streets of Sadr City to join processions of minibuses and sedans carrying wooden coffins. Women in black robes beat their chests while men waved pistols from car windows to clear the streets.

“I stayed up the entire night talking with friends and neighbors about what happened,” said Ghaith Qassim, 35, a clothing vendor at a funeral. “We’re so angry and sad over this. The people here blame the leaders of the government.”

Sadr City is the stronghold of Mr. Sadr and his militia, and the Thursday attacks, presumably carried out by Sunni Arab militants against Mr. Sadr’s followers, appeared to once again strengthen his political standing.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a conservative Shiite, relies on Mr. Sadr for political support against Shiite rivals, and a withdrawal of Mr. Sadr’s legislators from the 275-member Parliament could destabilize the government. American officials say that Mr. Sadr’s engagement in politics is necessary for any hope of a peaceful disarmament of his thousands-strong militia, the Mahdi Army, which is accused of involvement in waves of retaliatory killings of Sunni Arabs.

Saleh al-Igaili, a member of the Sadr parliamentary bloc, said in a speech at the main Sadr office in Sadr City that “if Maliki insists on going to meet Bush, we’ll walk out of Parliament and the government.”

Mr. Maliki is scheduled to meet with President Bush in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Wednesday to discuss the increasingly precarious situation in Iraq and the American strategy.

In his sermon on Friday, Mr. Sadr did not mention the calls for Mr. Maliki to cancel the meeting with President Bush. But he did repeat his oft-stated demand that American forces either withdraw from the country or set a timetable for their departure.

Mr. Sadr controls at least 30 seats in Parliament and three cabinet positions, including that of the health ministry, which was besieged by Sunni Arab insurgents right before the bombs went off in Sadr City on Thursday.

The gunmen, shooting from nearby buildings and surrounding streets, pelted the ministry with mortar shells and gunfire for two hours, though they fled when Iraqi troops and American military helicopters arrived, ministry officials and witnesses said.

Shiite revenge for the attacks on Thursday was swift. Shiite fighters fired about a dozen mortar shells into the predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Adhamiya in northern Baghdad, wounding at least 10 people, an Interior Ministry official said. Five more mortar shells were aimed at the former Mother of All Battles Mosque commissioned by Saddam Hussein in Ghazaliya, according to the mosque’s imam, Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidaie.Political leaders held an emergency meeting after the attacks and later appeared together, Sunni, Shiite and Kurd, to broadcast an appeal for calm and national unity. Top clerics sent similar messages.

“In this painful tragedy, I call on everybody to practice self-restraint and stay calm,” Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said in a separate televised address. “I hope that all political and civic powers will stand together to protect the citizens from criminal action.”

The government imposed an indefinite curfew on the capital, banning all vehicles and pedestrians from the streets, and closed Baghdad International Airport as well as the airport and seaport in the southern city of Basra. The Iraqi military command put the army on high alert, beefed up checkpoints throughout the city and established a cordon around Sadr City, according to an Iraqi military spokesman.

The authorities seemed intent on avoiding a repeat of the violent fallout that followed the bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra in late February. That attack set off the eruption of sectarian killings, which has gathered momentum during the year and has spun well beyond the control of Iraqi and American security forces.

The attacks on Thursday came at a critical time for the Iraqi and American governments, which have been struggling to figure out a political and military formula to curb the violence.

American and Sunni Arab officials have argued that a key to peace rests with the aggressive demobilization of the Shiite militias tied to the most powerful Shiite political parties. But Shiite leaders have insisted that the militias remain their final bulwark against the Sunni Arab-led insurgency. And Mr. Maliki, responding to his power base, has chosen a softer, negotiated approach to the militias, frustrating his American partners.

Thursday’s bombings will probably harden the Shiites’ position on militias and further complicate diplomacy between Mr. Maliki and President Bush, who are scheduled to meet in Amman next Wednesday to discuss strategies for stabilizing Iraq.

“We blame the government for the attacks,” said Said Adel al-Nuri, a representative of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, echoing the general sentiment of frustration and anger in the working-class district, which has more than two million people. “We have no trust in the government or in the Americans. We have completely lost faith in the government.”

According to the police, the Sadr City assault began when a suicide car bomber blew himself up at about 3:15 p.m. at a checkpoint leading into the neighborhood. That blast was followed in quick succession by that of two other suicide car bombers and two unattended car bombs, which exploded at different locations along a main avenue crowded with commuters and shoppers, witnesses said. At least one mortar shell exploded in the neighborhood, the police said, and a sixth car bomb was discovered and defused.

The car bombings destroyed dozens of other vehicles, scattered charred and mangled bodies and sent flames and thick pillars of smoke into the air. Frenzied crowds clawed through the wreckage, pulling bloodied bodies from cars and minibuses and moving them out in wooden carts.

Residents and Shiite militiamen flooded the streets, firing assault rifles into the air, shouting epithets against Sunni Arabs, the American authorities and the Iraqi government, and vowing revenge. Gunmen of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Mr. Sadr, commandeered the district, setting up roadblocks and searching cars.

“The people don’t know what to do,” said Muhammad Ali Muhammad, a 27-year-old Shiite laborer in Sadr City. “They’re going to the hospital to give blood. Some are standing around shocked.”

Fighting flared at the Health Ministry earlier Thursday. The attack on the ministry headquarters began around midday when three mortar shells hit the main building, Lt. Ali Muhsin of the Iraqi Police told The Associated Press. Gunmen positioned on the upper floors of surrounding buildings then opened fire on the main building, pinning down hundreds of workers inside, ministry officials said. Ministry security guards with assault rifles fired back and managed to keep the insurgents at bay until Iraqi and American troops responded two hours later, the officials said.

Sabah Chalob, a ministry spokesman, said about 15 mortar shells hit the building over the course of the firefight.

“The employees stayed inside the ministry, away from the windows that were being targeted by the snipers,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a deputy health minister, in an interview on the state-run Al Iraqiya network. “We saw the masked men moving freely, and with no fear, in the streets.”

At least seven ministry guards were wounded, First Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razzaq of the Iraqi police told The A.P., though a military spokesman denied that report.

The attack on the Health Ministry building was the fourth against the ministry’s employees in less than a week. The health minister, Ali al-Shemari, is an associate of Mr. Sadr, and the ministry is widely perceived by Sunni Arabs as a bastion of Shiite favoritism.

On Nov. 19, gunmen kidnapped a deputy health minister from his home in northern Baghdad. The following day, another deputy health minister narrowly escaped an ambush when gunmen opened fire on his convoy, though two of his bodyguards were killed. On Wednesday, gunmen shot and killed an assistant director general from the ministry, Mr. Zamili said.

The violence had the aspect of sectarian revenge. On Nov. 14, Shiite militiamen raided a building belonging to the Sunni Arab-run Ministry of Higher Education and abducted scores of people, some of whom remain missing, officials said.

As dusk fell on Baghdad, and with Sadr City in turmoil, several top political officials held an emergency meeting, including President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni vice president; and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite leader. Afterward, they appeared together on television to deliver a joint statement that sought to reduce tensions.

“We call on people to act responsibly and to stand together to calm the situation,” said the joint statement, read by Mr. Hashemi.

The government’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, also appeared on television with what he said was an appeal from the reclusive Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The ayatollah, he said, “denounced the evil attack against Sadr City and expressed his grief for the huge number of dead and injured people caused by the attack, and he is calling the people to control themselves and not to react outside the law.”

The American military said Thursday that three marines were killed Wednesday while fighting in Anbar Province, a stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

Omar al-Neami, John F. Burns, Hosham Hussein, Abdul Razzaq al-Saeidi and Joao Silva contributed reporting.

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