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Iraq shrine attack aimed at fueling strife

By Staff
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WASHINGTON, Feb 23 (Reuters) US President George W Bush said today the destruction of a major Shi'ite shrine in Iraq was an ''evil act'' designed to fuel civil strife and he urged calm amid growing fears of an all-out civil war.

Bush told reporters he understood the anger at the suspected al Qaeda bomb attack that destroyed the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines.

But he added, ''I appreciate very much the leaders from all aspects of Iraqi society that have stood up and urged for there to be calm.'' Yesterday's attack on the Golden Mosque has sparked reprisals on Sunni mosques and prompted the Iraqi government to impose a daytime curfew on Baghdad and three surrounding provinces tomorrow.

The violence, in which at least 130 people have been killed, threatens to undermine U.S. attempts to stabilize the country to pave the way for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

''The voices of reason from all aspects of Iraqi life understand that this bombing is intended to create civil strife, that the act was an evil act,'' Bush said.

''The destruction of a holy site is a political act intending to create strife,'' he added.

Several Iraq analysts saw the attack on the shrine as a tipping point for U.S. policy in Iraq where the fragile political process has been further damaged by the attack on such a symbolic target.

''The reality for the United States now is that we have lost control. We have the power to reshuffle the deck but we don't have the power to control where the cards fall,'' said Shibley Telhami from the Brookings Institution.

''TWISTS AND TURNS'' State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli disagreed that the political process was stalled and that there was chaos.

''Let's not blow this out of proportion. It's not a straight line with the same amount of movement every single day. It is a path with twists and turns. We all know that, and that's always been the case,'' Ereli told reporters.

He said the kind of violence that followed the bombing of the mosque had not been ''the widespread unrest that many people feared.'' Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he was not aware of any changes in the posture of U.S. troops in Iraq as a result of the latest violence.

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies said the spike in sectarian violence showed it was time for the United States to quit Iraq where she said the presence of U.S. troops was exacerbating tensions.

''The first step is to announce that we are withdrawing.

Once we do that several components within the armed resistance have said they will have a unilateral cease-fire,'' said Bennis.

Analysts have warned that some of the worst sectarian violence since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 might only drive Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds further apart and nudge the country that much closer to full-scale war.

Talks to form a new Iraqi government, more than two months after elections for Iraq's first full-term parliament, were already struggling as Shi'ites and Kurds jostled for power with minority Sunnis who have newly joined the U.S.-backed political process.

The main Sunni political group has pulled out of U.S.-sponsored talks on joining a national unity government, blaming the ruling Shi'ite Islamists for the reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has pressed ahead despite the Sunni boycott with meetings of political leaders that he called to avert a descent toward a ''devastating civil war.'' Reuters PDS VP0336

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