By Michael Georgy
BAGHDAD, Apr 8 (Reuters) One of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite leaders urged his followers today to resist being drawn into a sectarian civil war after a triple suicide bombing killed at least 70 people at a mosque associated with his party.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a top figure in the ruling Shi'ite Alliance, urged Shi'ites to stand firm against what he called a campaign by al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to ignite civil war with bombings like the one at a Baghdad mosque a day earlier.
''The alert Iraqi people, who are obedient to the religious establishments, should not give in to sectarian discord that is part of a campaign by Zarqawi and groups associated with him aimed at sectarian war,'' he told thousands of supporters.
''This nation will not fall into the trap of sectarian war that is being pursued by Zarqawi's groups.'' He spoke before a car bomb killed at least six Shi'ite pilgrims near a shrine south of Baghdad, according to police.
Yesterday's violence at the Buratha mosque in Baghdad, the biggest single suicide attack on a Shi'ite target since November 2005, raised fresh fears of a full-blown communal conflict, with the United States, Britain and U.N. quickly urging Iraqi unity.
Hakim's speech, delivered on the anniversary of the execution of top Shi'ite cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his sister by Saddam Hussein, called for unity between Iraq's main Shi'ite, Kurdish and Arab Sunni communities.
But he also reminded 60 percent majority Shi'ites of their decades of suffering under Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.
''(Sunni) militants and insurgents want to return Iraq to Saddam's formula,'' said Hakim, leader of the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
Sectarian tensions have been rising since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine on Feb. 22 touched off reprisals and pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Hundreds of bodies of people shot or strangled have turned up on Baghdad streets bound, blindfolded and showing signs of torture.
The mosque carnage, which came one day after a car bomb killed at least 15 people near a Shi'ite shrine in the southern city of Najaf, was the latest proof of how Iraqi leaders are unable to tackle violence as they struggle to form a government.
Hakim's ruling Alliance is under intense pressure to replace Ibrahim al-Jaafari as its nominee for prime minister to break the deadlock over postwar Iraq's first full-term government.
But Jaafari, who is the serving prime minister, refuses to step aside despite calls from Sunni and Kurdish leaders and even from within his own Alliance.
Hakim said repeatedly that Zarqawi and Saddam loyalists would fail to derail the political process. But four months after parliamentary elections, he could offer no clear timetable on the formation of a government.
''After the guidelines of the (Shi'ite) religious establishment, we will proceed to form a national unity government as soon as possible,'' he said.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabor has said he was confident that Zarqawi was no longer a serious threat. But Western intelligence sources disagree and Hakim seems just as concerned as ever, saying the whole region would suffer if he is not defeated.
''The battle of today is not just an Iraqi battle. Other countries will suffer and in the future there will be more suffering,'' he said.
''These militant groups oppose all Arab rulers. They must stand with strength with Iraq and the political process in Iraq.'' REUTERS CH HT1630