BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Gunmen wounded dozens of Shiite pilgrims and killed two in Baghdad on Wednesday, raking their vehicles with machinegun fire in the latest outbreak of sectarian violence that is threatening Iraq with civil war.
Police also reported the discovery of six more bodies on the streets of Baghdad, all apparent victims of the communal bloodshed between majority Shiites and once-dominant Sunnis which some Iraqi officials fear could expand into open warfare.
Rebels blasted a police station with grenade and mortar fire before dawn, killing four policemen in Madaen, southeast of Baghdad, in the second such attack in two days. Police said they had detained about 70 suspects in raids in the town afterwards.
The pilgrims were driving home a day after celebrating the major Arbain festival in Kerbala, south of the capital.
“We were on the highway when suddenly four cars stopped near us and began shooting,” a man who gave his name as Allawi told Reuters from his hospital bed. Police said 22 pilgrims were wounded and one was killed in an attack on an open truck in western Baghdad. In a second incident in the same area, one Shiite was killed and 18 were wounded when their bus was hit by machinegun fire.
A police patrol rushing to the scene of one attack was ambushed by gunmen who fired a rocket-propelled grenade, killing two policemen and wounding four, police said.
The surge in sectarian violence since the bombing of a major Shiite mosque exactly a month ago has almost overshadowed a Sunni Arab insurgency, but two bold attacks in the past two days were a reminder that Iraq’s authorities face war on two fronts.
Among those detained after the assault on the Madaen police station was a Syrian found with leaflets by the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mussab Zarqawi, police said.
On Tuesday, dozens of insurgents attacked a police post and jail at Miqdadiya, northeast of Baghdad, killing at least 22 people and freeing 30 prisoners.
The violence again underlined the need for Iraq’s leaders to break a deadlock over a government of national unity, widely seen as the best hope for stabilising the country.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday approved rare talks with Washington on Iraq, where Shiite Islamists with links to Tehran lead the interim government.
Some Iraqi officials hope US-Iranian contacts could ease the political logjam, which is due partly to rifts among Shiite parties as well as those involving Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
Three months after a parliamentary election, Iraqi factions remain deadlocked over how a national unity government should function and whether it should be led by interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, nominated by the main Shiite alliance.
Iraqi political sources said they expected the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to meet Iran’s representatives as early as this week in Baghdad.
Tehran denies US charges it is stirring communal bloodshed in Iraq or supplying material for insurgent roadside bombs.
Sectarian violence has seen hundreds of bodies, many bound and shot, dumped on Baghdad’s streets in recent weeks.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said earlier this week that Iraq was already in a state of civil war.
US President George W. Bush disputed that on Tuesday but said American troops may be in Iraq after the end of his presidency in three years’ time.
Any US pullout hinges on how well Iraq’s police and army, disbanded by US authorities in 2003 and now being rapidly rebuilt, can cope with the insurgency and sectarian violence.
But the attacks on the police stations have raised more questions about the effectiveness of the security forces, particularly if Iraq descends into all-out civil war.