Thousands of Iraq Shiites gather for march as coalition warns of civil war

news3_4_8.jpgBAGHDAD (AFP) — Thousands of Shiites converged on Baghdad ahead of a major demonstration planned for Friday as British and US officials warned that Iraq’s bitter sectarian conflict could push the country into civil war.

Shiite protesters were summoned to the capital by radical cleric Moqtada Sadr in order to protest Israel’s attacks on Lebanon but also as a show of force by a leading opponent of the US-led coalition force in Iraq.

The protest is timed to begin after Friday prayers and could bring tens of thousands onto the streets at a time when the city is already on edge after a series of sectarian and insurgent attacks on police and civilians.

In the latest bombing Thursday, a booby-trapped moped detonated in a market and ripped through fruit stalls scattering the corpses of at least 10 victims among remnants of grapes and peaches on a bloodstained street in the centre of Baghdad. Across the centre and south of the country, Shiites waved Iraqi flags and chanted “Death to America! Death to Israel!” as they mounted convoys of buses to head for Baghdad’s Sadr City district, home to some two million Shiites.

“Thousands of Najaf people have set off for Baghdad as a response to Moqtada Sadr’s invitation to take part,” said Sahib Ameri,  director general of the Foundation for God’s Martyrs, part of Sadr’s movement. Both Ameri and an interior ministry official said that US troops had fired on one of the convoys heading to Baghdad, killing at least one protester. A US spokesman confirmed that there had been an incident near Mahmudiyah on the road north to Baghdad, but said that troops had returned fire and killed two suspects after they were shot at from a group of vehicles.

Anger over Israel’s war against Lebanon, which has caused widespread civilian casualties, has raised passions in Iraq, where Shiite factions have an uneasy relationship with the US-backed government. On Wednesday, President Jalal Talabani painted an optimistic picture of Iraq’s beefed-up security strategy, predicting that homegrown police and army units would be ready to take charge right across Iraq by the end of the year.

But officials from the United States and Britain — who between them have 137,000 troops in country supporting the government — warned that violence between Sunni and Shiite factions posed a serious threat to Iraq’s future.

Another pessimist was Britain’s outgoing ambassador, William Patey, who warned his government in a leaked memo that civil war was a “more likely” outcome of the current crisis than a unified, democratic country.

“The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy,” Patey wrote, in a memo obtained by the BBC.

“Even the lowered expectation of [US] President [George W.] Bush for Iraq — a government that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself and is an ally in the war on terror — must remain in doubt.” The ambassador made the assessment in his final telegram — which the BBC said it had seen — before leaving the Iraqi capital last week. In Washington, the top US military commander in the Middle East warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iraq could slide into civil war if the sectarian violence there is not stopped.

“I believe the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that, if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war,” said General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command.

The US-led coalition is rushing 3,700 extra combat troops to Baghdad — the focus of the sectarian conflict — in an attempt to save a struggling Iraqi security plan which has failed to stem the violence.

In mounting tit-for-tat attacks, death squads from rival Sunni and Shiite groups trade kidnaps, shootings, car bombs and mortar barrages in the heart of the city, leaving dozens dead almost every day.

Two US Marines were killed in separate incidents Thursday in the western province of Anbar, their headquarters announced. Twelve corpses were found in Baghdad, the interior ministry said.

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