BAGHDAD (Agencies) â€” Car bombs killed more than 60 Iraqis on Sunday as Prime Minister Nuri Maliki prepared for a White House visit expected to focus on halting what many see as Iraq’s accelerating slide towards all-out sectarian civil war.
Saddam Hussein, whose iron rule was ended by the US invasion three years ago, had medical treatment after 16 days on hunger strike that the chief prosecutor in his trial said would keep him out of court.
The US military declined direct comment on complaints by Saddam’s lawyer that he was being force fed.
A blast killed 36 civilians at a market in Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum that is a stronghold of the Mehdi Army.
It came a day after the inaugural meeting of a commission to develop reconciliation strategies for Iraq’s rival ethnic and religious factions ended with no obvious result.
Another car bomb exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least 20 civilians outside a courthouse, police and witnesses said.
Kurds, Arabs and others are contesting control of the city, which sits atop one of the world’s great oil lakes.
In east Baghdad, shattered vehicles showed the power of the blast. Blood lay in pools. Some witnesses spoke of a suicide bomber driving a minivan.
Police said the cause was unclear.
“If this is not civil war … then I don’t know what is,” a senior government official told Reuters.
The official dismissed complaints from US and other Iraqi leaders that media are exaggerating the dangers of violence in which the United Nations reckons 100 people are being killed daily and tens of thousands have fled their homes.
The main party from Saddam’s once dominant Sunni Arab minority stayed away from the first meeting of a Reconciliation Commission that Maliki has called the “last chance” for peace.
Sunnis, whose community has rebelled for the past three years against US occupation and Shiite majority rule, accuse Shiite militia death squads of targeting them.
US officials also now say such sectarian violence is a greater threat than the Sunni insurgency. US and Iraqi troops fought a three-hour gunbattle near a Shiite mosque at Mussayab, south of Baghdad, on Saturday, killing 15 fighters.
They also engaged in fierce clashes in Sadr City overnight, arresting eight people suspected of “death squad” activities.
A senior member of parliament from the movement of Mehdi Army leader and cleric Moqtada Sadr said on Sunday that 14 people killed in the fighting at Mussayab were Sadr followers.
Bahaa Araji also accused Maliki’s unity government, to which Sadr’s group belongs, of giving refuge to Sunni fighters and warned of violence if his group’s demands were ignored.
In comments that bode ill for internal government coordination, Bahaa Araji said: “Many terrorists have infiltrated this government… The occupiers and Sunni extremists are trying to hinder national reconciliation.”
In a rare public comment confirming Sadr’s militiamen are taking the law into their own hands, Araji said they seized 49 “terrorists” in Mahmoudiyah, near Mussayab, but these were freed after a raid by US forces that left 10 Sadr followers dead.
Maliki was to meet officials in London on Sunday and Monday before seeing Bush at the White House on Tuesday. He has said he will discuss ways of improving security, especially in Baghdad, where US commanders say they may deploy more troops.
Bush is under pressure to show progress in Iraq, clearing the way for US troop cuts, as his Republicans face elections in November with their control of Congress at stake.
But some top Iraqi leaders admit privately they despair of being able to avert all-out civil war. “Iraq as a political project is finished,” a top government official told Reuters.
The US administration insists democracy can work in the country after decades of dictatorial rule by Saddam.
The 69-year-old former president was fed in a hospital on Sunday after 16 days without eating, the chief prosecutor in his trial told Reuters. His lawyer said his American military jailers were force feeding him. A US spokesman would say only that he was receiving “appropriate” medical care.
The trial for crimes against humanity risks being disrupted.
The defence is due to resume its summing up on Monday and a verdict has been expected from about September. But Saddam’s lawyers said they will boycott the trial following last month’s killing of a defence attorney, the third such death in Baghdad.