With sectarian violence surging Saturday after a day of relative calm, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari met in emergency session with Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political leaders, and a daytime curfew in Baghdad was extended as Defense Ministry officials threatened to send tanks into the streets to prevent further bloodletting and attacks on mosques.
U.S.-led troops, meanwhile, stepped up patrols in the capital and President Bush, in an unusual diplomatic gesture, called seven Iraqi political leaders and encouraged them to work together to defuse the violence that began when a venerated Shiite shrine in Samarra was bombed Wednesday by unknown assailants.
The Iraqi leaders emerged together from their three-hour meeting in a show of unity that was broadcast live on state television. Jafari, a Shiite, was flanked by Shiite politicians but also by Sunni Arabs, who had threatened to boycott the political process after a series of killings and attacks on Sunni mosques followed the explosion at Samarra’s Golden Mosque.
The officials announced the establishment of a national security committee that would include Sunnis who are not in the Shiite-led Iraqi government.
“By the end of the meeting, all were standing together behind a common sense of principles,” said a Western diplomat who was present at the session. “People have found a way not only back to the table but to the decision-making room, and they have agreed on a plan.”
With many Iraqis still fearing that the nation is on the verge of a sectarian civil war, the government canceled all leave for security forces, announced a continued state of emergency and extended the curfew in Baghdad for 34 hours.
At the same time, both U.S. and Iraqi government officials sought to play down the continuing violence, and they disputed media accounts, calling them exaggerated.
On Saturday, the violence continued, with at least 50 more people killed in attacks across the country.
In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, home to the two of the sect’s most important shrines, a car bomb killed at least seven people, local hospital officials said. The explosives-packed vehicle was detonated using a wireless device, according to police who said three Iraqi officers were killed in the blast.
In a village near Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, gunmen broke into a house and killed an entire Shiite family of 12, Iraqi officials said.
On Baghdad’s outskirts, the funeral procession of Atwar Bahjat, a popular female TV anchor from the Al Arabiya station, was attacked Saturday as it passed through the town of Abu Ghraib. Two police officers were shot dead and five were wounded, officials said. Bahjat and two colleagues were killed Wednesday in Samarra as they were covering the shrine bombing.
In Baghdad, mortar rounds rained down on various neighborhoods starting at 8 a.m., killing three people in the impoverished Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City. Eight people were wounded in three attacks.
Just west of the capital, a roadside bomb exploded in Khan Dari, killing one police commando and injuring three.
Police reported the discovery of another 28 bodies Saturday morning, 15 of those in Baghdad and 13 in neighboring Diyala province, a mixed Sunni and Shiite area.
Late Saturday evening, appeals for help could be heard from a Sunni mosque in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Amariya.
“Help us, help us,” a cleric called through the mosque loudspeakers as gunfire raged outside. “People of Amariya, come and help.”
Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaimi said the government was ready to send tanks into the streets if necessary.
“There are armored brigades that are waiting for a sign to go at any time,” Dulaimi said. Interior Ministry officials, meanwhile, announced that security forces would also seek to enforce a weapons ban.
Bush, in his phone calls, spoke to the leaders of each of Iraq’s main political groups for the first time since the Samarra attack and the violence that followed.
“He encouraged them to continue to work together to thwart efforts of the perpetrators of the violence to sow discord among Iraq’s communities,” said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. “The president underscored his support for Iraqi efforts to build a government of national unity.”
Among the leaders Bush spoke with were Prime Minister Jafari; President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Tariq Hashemi, a leader of the main Sunni coalition; Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite political party; Hachim Hassani, a Sunni and speaker of the National Assembly; Iyad Allawi, a former interim premier who is a secular Shiite with Sunni allies; and Massoud Barzani, a Kurdish leader.
Hakim’s Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq said he told Bush that in the wake of the mosque bombing, Iraq, like the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks, needed to revive national security plans.
Media reports have cited a death toll of more than 150 since the bombing in Samarra, with two days of rampages and a relative lull Friday before Saturday’s bloodshed.
Defense Minister Dulaimi contended that the death toll had been exaggerated and that as of Saturday afternoon, it stood at 118.
In a news conference in the heavily-fortified Green Zone, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters that “there have been pockets of violence but we don’t see that as a precursor to civil war.”
The military checked every report of violence and the number of mosques damaged in the last few days was lower than reported, he said.
“We are indeed seeing a return to normalcy,” Lynch added.
Sounding tired and exasperated, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad also talked of a calmer atmosphere in a conference call with reporters after a day of nonstop meetings with leaders in Baghdad.
“I have talked to them about the risks of a civil war,” Khalilzad said. “Those who exploded the Askariya shrine wanted to provoke a civil war. We are not completely out of danger yet.”
He added, “I have talked to our military folks and to Iraqis -- everyone believes that the prospect for a civil war has diminished significantly in the course of the last several days, and that’s clearly a good thing.”
Khalilzad said Sunni Arab and Shiite leaders would continue to meet through the night and that U.S.-led troops had increased patrols in the capital to about 300, up from 60 earlier in the week.
“There are parts of the city that did not use to welcome U.S. forces, and now they are asking for coalition forces to come and help,” he said.
Since Wednesday’s bombing, militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr have marched in the streets of Baghdad by the hundreds, carrying automatic weapons and grenade launchers. Although the demonstrations largely have been peaceful, they have made clear the military power held by the young cleric.
Representatives from Sadr’s office participated in a televised event in front of Abu Hanifa mosque -- the largest Sunni mosque in Baghdad -- in which Sunni and Shiite clerics and political leaders announced a “charter of honor.”
“We have agreed among ourselves to bind the wounds, and to surpass the sedition,” said Isam Arrawi, a member of the hard-line Sunni Muslim Scholars Assn.
The text of the charter condemned the attacks against mosques and called for an investigation. One is already underway, officials said, and on Saturday, Jafari reiterated the government’s plan to reconstruct destroyed mosques.
“Our country is passing through a crucial stage and stands in front of hard choice,” President Talabani said in a statement.
“In order to cross to the peaceful shore, we must renounce the sectarianism and unify ranks.”
Times staff writers Shamil Aziz, Suhail Ahmad in Baghdad, Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.