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Over 100 killed as sectarian violence sweeps Iraq

By Staff
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BAGHDAD, Feb 23 (Reuters) More than 130 people, including dozens who joined a demonstration against sectarian violence, were killed in bloodshed across Iraq despite calls for calm today from leaders fearful of civil war.

A day after a suspected al Qaeda bomb destroyed a major Shi'ite shrine, Iraq cancelled all leave for the police and army and minority Sunni political leaders pulled out of U.S.-backed talks on forming a national unity government, accusing the ruling Shi'ites of fomenting dozens of attacks on Sunni mosques.

Washington, which wants stability in Iraq to help it extract around 130,000 U.S. troops, has also called for restraint, reflecting international fears that the oil-exporting country of 27 million may be slipping closer to all-out sectarian war.

But the main Sunni religious authority made an extraordinary public criticism of the Shi'ites' most revered clerical leader, accusing him of fuelling the violence by calling for protests.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, pressed ahead despite the Sunni boycott with a meeting that he had called to avert a descent towards a civil war. After discussions with Shi'ites, Kurds and leaders of a smaller Sunni group, he told a televised news conference that if all-out war came ''no one will be safe''.

Police and military sources tallied more than 130 deaths, mostly of Sunnis, around the two biggest cities Baghdad and Basra in the 24 hours since the bloodless but highly symbolic bombing of the Shi'ite Golden Mosque in Samarra. Dozens of Sunni mosques have been attacked and several burnt to the ground.

In the bloodiest single incident, officials said 47 people who had taken part in a joint Sunni and Shi'ite demonstration against the Samarra bombing were hauled from vehicles after they left and shot dead on the outskirts of the capital. The identities of the gunmen and the victims was not clear.

They were all dumped in a ditch beside the road, said Dhary Thoaban, deputy chairman of the Diyala regional council.

Earlier, there had been conflicting accounts of the incident but police and military officials all confirmed Thaoban's version.

HIGH ALERT The Interior Ministry said all police and army leave was cancelled, curfews were extended as the country locks down for three days of national mourning. Universities postponed Saturday's start of the spring semester by nearly three weeks.

A bomb blasted an Iraqi army foot patrol in a market in the religiously divided city of Baquba, killing 16 people.

Three journalists working for Al Arabiya television were found shot dead after being attacked while filming in Samarra.

The Iraqi Accordance Front, which won most of the minority Sunni vote in December's parliamentary election, said it would need an apology from the ruling Shi'ites before it would consider rejoining talks on a national unity coalition.

''We are suspending our participation in negotiations on the government with the Shi'ite Alliance,'' Tareq al-Hashemi, a top official of the Accordance Front, told a news conference at which he accused Shi'ite leaders of fostering the violence.

MORE REUTERS SRS HS2217

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