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Bus station bomb after Iraqi leaders call for calm

By Staff
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BAGHDAD, Feb 26: A bomb killed five people at a bus station south of Baghdad today, breaking a relative calm after Iraqi and U S leaders appealed for an end to days of sectarian bloodshed that have pitched Iraq toward civil war.

The bomb destroyed a minibus as it drove out of a bus garage in Hilla, a mainly Shi'ite town surrounded by Sunni villages; it came two days short of the anniversary of the bloodiest single al Qaeda bombing, which killed 124 people there a year ago.

Another bomb killed two U S soldiers overnight in Baghdad despite a third day of draconian curfew measures in the capital.

Hours earlier, following a round of calls to Iraqi leaders by U S President George W Bush, Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari made a midnight televised appeal, flanked by Sunni and Kurdish politicians, to Iraqis not to turn on each other after Wednesday's suspected al Qaeda bomb at a Shi'ite shrine.

A three-hour meeting produced a commitment from the main political groups to form a unity coalition, although Sunni leader Tareq al-Hashemi said he was not yet ready to end a boycott of the U S-sponsored coalition talks.

Four days of tit-for-tat attacks have left over 200 dead and many mosques damaged, despite a daytime curfew on Baghdad that went into its third day today; the defence minister warned of the risk of a civil war that ''will never end''.

A traffic ban intended to help stifle the violence remained in force in the capital. But in addition to the attack on the U S soldiers, a mortar round landed near a Shi'ite mosque in the east of the city, though without causing injury.

Shi'ite local community leaders in Baghdad said several hundred Shi'ites had fled homes in the capital's restive Sunni suburb of Abu Ghraib and were being housed temporarily in schools and other buildings in Shi'ite neighbourhoods.

OPTIMISM

Near Madaen, another flashpoint for Sunni-Shi'ite violence just to the southeast, a policeman was killed and two were wounded when their patrol was hit by roadside bombs.

In Hilla, police said it was not clear if the bomb was inside the minibus or exploded in the road as it passed.

Jaafari, under U S pressure to forge a national unity government after an election in December, the first that the once-dominant Sunni minority had taken part in, said he was hopeful that Iraqis would step back from sectarian strife.

''The Iraqi people have one enemy; it is terrorism and only terrorism. There are no Sunnis against Shi'ites,'' he said.

In Basra, fiery young Shi'ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr appeared at a rally to call for Muslim unity against U S forces and told his followers to hold joint prayers next Friday at Sunni mosques hit by past days' violence.

Shortly afterwards, a bomb wrecked the washroom of a Shi'ite mosque several km (miles) away; police suspected three men wounded in the blast had been planting the explosives.

Though Sadr's black-clad Mehdi Army militia have been accused by officials of taking part in attacks on Sunni mosques, Sadr himself, his influence rising within the ruling but factionalised Shi'ite Islamist bloc, denies ordering violence.

However, Shi'ites' show of force after the bloodless destruction of Samarra's Golden Mosque has exceeded any sparked by past al Qaeda attacks and may strengthen militia leaders' hands in negotiations with Sunnis and with fellow Shi'ites.

AMERICANS

Resented on both sides, the 136,000 U S troops in Iraq find themselves caught in the middle. Under political pressure at home, Bush is keen to withdraw troops quickly and the present bloodshed has been a setback.

The White House said Bush, in his calls to Baghdad, had encouraged the leaders to ''continue to work together to thwart the efforts of the perpetrators of the violence to sow discord''.

Jaafari said that ''all, or most'' of the leaders who met yesterday had ''expressed the importance of accelerating the political process without any delay''.

Sunni leader Hashemi called the meeting ''a first step in the right direction'', but said his Accordance Front would not rejoin formal coalition talks immediately.

Iraqi and U S officials blamed the bloodless but symbolic attack on Samarra's Golden Mosque on al Qaeda, saying it wants to wreck the project for democracy in Iraq; al Qaeda accused Shi'ites of carrying it out as an excuse for attacks on Sunnis.

REUTERS

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