BAGHDAD, Iraq – Shiite militiamen and Sunni Arab insurgents went on murderous attacks here Sunday, killing at least 60 people in shootings and bombings in a bloody outbreak that raised the specter of a city sinking deeper into sectarian warfare.
The Sunday-morning killings of at least 41 Sunni Arab men by Shiite militiamen in the Jihad neighborhood, in apparent retaliation for a mosque bombing the previous night, were among the most serious examples of open street warfare between Shiites and Sunnis to date.
A senior government official, Haidar Majid, contested the police figures, saying late Sunday that only nine people died in Jihad. Police Lt. Mohammed Khayoun insisted the figure of 41 was correct – with 24 bodies taken to Yarmouk hospital and 17 to the city morgue. There was no way to reconcile the discrepancy.
The killings immediately set off a political firestorm, with one Sunni leader accusing the government of negligence and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, downplaying the events, insisting that the “situation in Baghdad is under control.”
But presidential security adviser Wafiq al-Samaraie told Al-Jazeera television that “we are at the gates of civil war” unless “exceptional measures” are taken.
As dusk settled, a pair of car bombs apparently set off by Sunni Arab insurgents damaged a Shiite mosque in a northern Baghdad neighborhood, killing at least 19 worshippers and wounding as many as 59 others.
Sunni Arab politicians, who have already threatened to pull out of the nascent government, blamed the violence on Shiites, demanding that security forces crack down on militias who are believed to operate in part out of the security services.
Violence in the religiously mixed Jihad neighborhood began Saturday morning after a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque killed at least eight worshippers and passersby, officials said.
Early Sunday morning, militiamen began roaming the neighborhood and setting up checkpoints. The gunmen stopped cars, checked passengers’ identification cards and shot dead those with Sunni names.
U.S. and Iraqi forces sealed off the area, and residents said American troops using loudspeakers announced a two-day curfew.
Also Sunday, two Sunni clerics from the Muslim Scholars Association were killed in Samarra as they were driving away from a local mosque.