Retaliatory massacres by gunmen and bombers linked to rival Muslim sects have left more than 130 people dead across Iraq over the last two days, the latest casualties of what some politicians now are calling an undeclared civil war.
At least 57 Iraqis were killed Tuesday and scores more injured when a suicide bomber lured a group of day laborers to his minivan with the promise of work before setting off explosives.
The bombing in Kufa rained blood, burnt debris and charred body parts on a small market across the street from the Muslim bin Aqil mosque, the main platform for radical Shiite cleric and militia leader Muqtada Sadr.
Since the beginning of May, attacks by Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslims have claimed the lives of more than 6,000 Iraqi civilians, according to a United Nations study and Iraqi police reports.
The Kufa blast, coming on the heels of mass killings and bombings attributed to Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia and its Sunni Arab enemies, brought the battle to the Shiite cleric’s doorstep, igniting fears of a fresh wave of reprisal killings.
“The message is clear, and the message confirms the sectarian differences,” said Fadhil Sharih, a leader of the Sadr movement. “It seems clear that it’s been moving toward the direction of civil war.”
U.S. and Iraqi government leaders have argued that the 150,000-strong foreign troop presence has kept the country from descending into full-scale civil war. But many Iraqi officials fear the threshold has been crossed.
“What is happening in Iraq is a disaster and a tragedy,” Adnan Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab leader, said in an interview.
“It’s bloodshed and killing of the innocents, killing the elderly and women and children. It’s mass killings. It’s nothing less than an undeclared civil war.”
Many members of Iraq’s political class spoke gravely of the massacres and bombings of the last few days, even as two U.S. Cabinet officials visiting Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone this week touted Iraq as a potential bonanza for private investors.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Arab political group, warned Tuesday that “Iraq is witnessing a grave escalation in violence,” and it called on Iraqis “to return to their senses instead of slipping into the abyss.”
The surge in violence has terrified residents of Baghdad and other mixed Sunni and Shiite areas. The Baghdad airport has been flooded with Iraqis of modest means seeking to escape even temporarily the country’s upswing in sectarian slayings.
According to a U.N. study based on Health Ministry statistics, 2,669 Iraqi civilians were killed in May and 3,149 were killed in June. And this month, the violence appears to be accelerating, particularly in the Baghdad area that is the target of a sweeping security crackdown aimed at quelling the violence. U.S. and Iraqi troops launched the sweep, to great fanfare, after a visit in mid-June by President Bush.
“Things are getting worse,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker.
Even those who hesitate to call Iraq’s sectarian violence a civil war have begun saying that defusing the situation will require the international mechanisms used to mediate previous ethnic, religious and political conflicts in Central America, the former Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka.
“I start to feel the need to say that there is a civil war,” said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a Sunni politician, “in order to borrow the tools and solutions of past civil wars to apply them here, and to call upon the international community to deal with Iraq’s problems on this basis.”
The latest cycle of violence began with the July 8 bombing of a small Shiite mosque in the Jihad neighborhood of southwest Baghdad.
Shiite militiamen took to the streets the next day, pulling Sunnis from their homes and cars and executing them on the spot.
A string of bombings targeting Shiite mosques and markets followed.
In the morgue, the bodies of Sunnis piled up, felled with single bullets to the head, apparently by Shiite death squads.
And in the religiously mixed Dora section of Baghdad, Sunni gunmen began stopping cars filled with Shiite mourners headed to the cemetery in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, pulling out the occupants and killing them.
In apparent retaliation, three Sunni Arab members of the Ghereir tribe were abducted Sunday night and slain. Their burned and mutilated bodies were found in a pickup truck near Musayyib.
Hours later, dozens of gunmen flocked into the Shiite town center of Mahmoudiya, killing 42 civilians as they sought to flee the well-coordinated force, officials said.
Later Monday night, the bodies of 32 Sunni Arab men were found in Baghdad. The discovery was followed by Tuesday’s attack in Kufa.
“I got out of my car to drink some water,” said Sadik Kadhim Ali, a 30-year-old Shiite farmer being treated at the nearby hospital in Najaf for multiple shrapnel wounds to his legs from the minivan blast. “The car exploded. Many people were killed, and there were body parts all over.”
Hours later, police discovered 14 more bodies near the mixed Mahmoudiya area.
The broken glass mingles with specks of human blood. The corpses and anger mount. Each attack, played over and over on satellite television channels controlled by political parties with sectarian agendas, is magnified across the airwaves.
“It is actually a civil war,” said Ayad Samaraie, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
“It is action and reaction. And it is increasing day after day.”
Iraq’s elected political leaders have floated several plans to contain the fighting, among them the Baghdad security plan, which includes new checkpoints and curfews and a requirement that Iraqis own no more than one automatic weapon and keep it at home.
That crackdown has been declared a failure by all but the most strident supporters of the current government.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his aides also continue to promote a reconciliation plan meant to draw at least some of the Sunni insurgents away from the gun and bring Shiite militias under the authority of government security forces.
In recent days, Iraqi politicians have proposed joint neighborhood watch groups made up of loyalists of both Shiite and Sunni political parties, in an attempt to spur dialogue and prevent reprisal killings.
“We’re talking about the security situation on the ground in different neighborhoods,” said Haider Abadi, a lawmaker and member of Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party. “Without having understanding and cooperation on the ground, we’ll be drawn into civil war.”
Still, even Sunni and Shiite political leaders, who meet frequently in the Green Zone, are far from an accord and often seem to talk past one another in discussing solutions for ending the escalating violence.
Shiites continue to heap most of the blame on loyalists of former President Saddam Hussein and takfiris, or Sunni Arab extremists, many of them from other countries. Sunnis contend that organized Shiite gunmen in the government security forces, perhaps trained by neighboring Iran, are instigating the violence.
“Elements inside the government are not in agreement,” Othman said. “Some people call a group terrorist and others say they are the resistance. Some say the problem is Saddamists; others say, no, the problem is militias.”
Unbridled lawlessness continued elsewhere. On Tuesday, gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms robbed a bank in west Baghdad, making off with about $1 million in Iraqi currency.
Clashes also broke out in the southern city of Basra between Sadr’s followers and British soldiers. A Mahdi army official said at least four Iraqis were killed.
Five Iraqi police officers were killed by a roadside bomb near Hawija, a Sunni Arab city near the ethnically contested city of Kirkuk.
In Baqubah, gunmen killed a police officer on his way to work.
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed and Shamil Aziz in Baghdad, special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Kufa and Najaf, and special correspondents in Baqubah, Basra and Kirkuk contributed to this report.