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Curfew stalls Iraq bloodshed, mosques urge calm

By Staff
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BAGHDAD, Feb 24 (Reuters) A daytime curfew in Baghdad and concerted calls for Muslim unity from mosques across the country today seemed to check sectarian violence that has left 200 dead in the capital alone over the past three days.

Though tens of thousands of Shi'ite supporters of militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr defied the ban to march to weekly prayers in Baghdad's Sadr City stronghold and his Mehdi Army militia was involved in clashes, there was little bloodshed and appeals from pulpits may have nudged Iraq back from the brink of civil war.

''We are not enemies but brothers,'' Sadr told his followers.

A senior Shi'ite politician said: ''Sunni and Shi'ite clerics and political leaders have made great efforts and the situation is better. But to be honest, Iraq is still in the danger zone.'' Dozens of reprisal attacks on minority Sunni mosques since a suspected al Qaeda bomb destroyed a major Shi'ite shrine on Wednesday have stalled talks on a national unity government that U.S. President George W. Bush says is the key to the stability that would let him bring home 130,000 American troops.

Thousands of untested, U.S.-trained Iraqi police and troops blocked roads across Baghdad and surrounding regions as U.S.

patrols, widely resented by both sides, kept a low profile.

Drawn heavily from rival militias, the new Iraqi forces' loyalties will be sorely tested if they do have to intervene.

''Even were we only a quarter as many, we would fight and defend our country,'' General Mubdir al-Dulaimi, commander of Iraqi forces in Baghdad, told a news conference.

Elsewhere, including the second city of Basra which has also seen violence, there was neither curfew nor much trouble.

Police sources said 20 people had been killed around Baghdad overnight and in the morning, compared to nearly 180 over the preceding two days when Iraqis confronted mayhem and fear unseen since the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Mehdi Army fighters and suspected Sunni gunmen clashed in southern Baghdad during the night and morning, police said.

Gunmen killed three Shi'ites in a house south of the capital.

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