BAGHDAD, Mar 13 (Reuters) Up to six car bombs ripped through the east Baghdad stronghold of a major Shi'ite militia force, killing 46 people and wounding 204 and raising fears reprisals could again pitch Iraq toward civil war.
The apparently coordinated attacks on markets in Sadr City occurred as political leaders, shepherded by the US ambassador to Iraq, met once more without obvious result to discuss forming a national unity government that might avert a bloodbath.
The blasts ended a lull that itself followed days of violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra on February 22.
Final police accounts of the attacks said up to six cars exploded in quick succession in the area. Officials put the death toll at 46.
''People were torn to pieces,'' said a witness, declining to be named.
Amid chaos at nearby hospitals, the wounded lay on floors and women wept. One man sat silently slapping his head in grief.
Officials said after the Samarra boming that a new major attack could spark all-out sectarian conflict. Two years of relative restraint by the Shi'ite majority, under clerical orders, is wearing thin, some Shi'ite leaders warn.
A major Sunni religious organisation, the Sunni Endowment, was quick to issue a statement condemning the Sadr City attacks.
SLUM STRONGHOLD Gunmen from the Mehdi Army militia of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr sealed off his sprawling slum stronghold, home to some two million people, and militia officials blamed Sunni militants loyal to Saddam Hussein.
Sunni leaders accuse the Mehdi Army of taking a lead in attacks on Sunni homes and mosques, mainly in Baghdad, after the Samarra Golden Mosque bombing, despite Sadr's insistent denials.
Three months after elections in which the once dominant Sunni minority took full part, hopes that this would help end violence and bring the country together have been dented.
Parliament has yet to meet but President Jalal Talabani said it would now do so on Thursday, three days earlier than planned.
Talks on a government were halted by the violence after the Samarra bombing, which killed hundreds in just a few days.
''We have decided to continue meetings among representatives of the parliamentary blocs and then put the issues to their leaders to find an appropriate solution,'' Talabani said after a series of meetings yesterday.
US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, playing a key role in negotiations that Washington hopes can curb violence and let it start withdrawing troops, was upbeat.
He called it positive that parliament would now meet this week and said leaders would begin ''continuous'' talks on Tuesday with a view to settling on a coalition line-up soon.
Sunnis, Kurds and secular leaders have been blocking an accord with a demand that Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'ite who has led the interim government for the past year, should be dropped as the Shi'ites' choice of premier for the new four-year term.
After Sunnis and Shi'ites held their first substantive talks on Saturday since the Feb. 22 shrine bombing, Jaafari himself said on Sunday he would not step down.
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