BAGHDAD (AP) â€” Masked Shiite gunmen rampaged through a tense neighbourhood of west Baghdad on Sunday, dragging Sunnis from their cars, picking them out on the street and killing at least 41 in a dramatic escalation of sectarian violence.
Hours later, two car bombs exploded near a Shiite mosque in north Baghdad, killing 17 people and wounding 38 in what appeared to be a reprisal attack, police said.
Shiite gunmen blocked roads into Shiite neighbourhoods to guard against revenge attacks, residents said, as scattered clashes occurred elsewhere in the tense Iraqi capital.
Sunni leaders expressed outrage over the killings, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, appealed for calm, warning that the nation stood â€œin front of a dangerous precipiceâ€.Â The trouble started about 10:00am when several carloads of gunmen drove into the Jihad area along the main road to Baghdad International Airport, police and witnesses said.
The gunmen stopped cars, checked passengers’ identification cards and shot dead those with Sunni names.
Masked gunmen wearing black clothing roamed through the streets, abducting Sunnis whose bodies were found later scattered throughout the religiously mixed neighbourhood, an interior ministry official said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to media.
US and Iraqi forces sealed off the area, and residents said American troops using loudspeakers announced a two-day curfew.
Black smoke from burning tyres wafted through the streets.
Police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razzaq said 41 bodies had been collected and taken to hospitals. Some Sunni clerics put the death toll at more than 50 in Jihad, a once a prosperous neighbourhood of handsome villas owned by officials of Saddam Hussein’s security services.
Residents contacted by telephone told of gunmen systematically rounding up and massacring Sunni men.
A Shiite shopkeeper said he saw heavily armed men pull four people out of a car, blindfold them and force them to stand to the side while they grabbed five others out of a minivan.
â€œAfter ten minutes, the gunmen took the nine people to a place few metres away from the market and opened fire on them,â€ Saad Jawad Azzawi said.
Wissam Mohammad Ani, a Sunni, said three gunmen stopped him as he was talking towards a bus stop and demanded his identification. They let him go after he produced a fake ID with a Shiite name, but they seized two young men standing nearby.
Police and Shiite leaders speculated that the rampage was carried out in apparent retaliation for the Saturday night car bombing of a Shiite mosque that killed two and wounded nine.
Clashes also broke out between gunmen and Iraqi police in at least three neighbourhoods across the capital, police and residents said. Three Shiite militiamen were killed in fighting with security forces in one of them, police said.
The spokesman for a Sunni clerical association, Mohammed Beshar Faydhi, blamad the Jihad attack on the Mahdi Army militia, led by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.
Faydhi told Jazeera television that he had documents to prove his allegation.
But Sadr denied his militia was responsible and called on both Shiites and Sunnis to â€œjoin hands for the sake of Iraq’s independence and stability.â€ He assured Vice President Tariq Hashimi, leader of the largest Sunni Arab party, that he would punish any of his militiamen if they were involved.
Late Sunday, black-clad Mahdi militiamen were seen manning checkpoints on the streets of most of the capital’s major Shiite neighbourhoods.
Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, a Shiite, has promised to disband the militias, blamed for much of the sectarian violence. On Friday, Iraqi troops backed by US jets raided a Shiite militia stronghold in Sadr City, killing and wounding dozens of people.
But militias have flourished in large part because of the inability of the police, the Iraqi army and coalition forces to guarantee security. Many Shiites believe the militias are their only protection against Sunni extremists such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, responsible for many car bombings and suicide attacks against Shiite civilians.
The violence is likely to complicate US and Iraqi efforts to encourage disaffected Sunnis to abandon the Sunni-dominated insurgency and join in political life so that US troops can begin to go home.
Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zubaie, a Sunni, described the Jihad attack as â€œa real and ugly massacre,â€ and blamed Iraqi security forces, widely believed to have been infiltrated by Shiite militias.
â€œThere are officers who instead of being in charge should be questioned and referred to judicial authorities,â€ Zubaie told Jazeera TV.
â€œJihad is witnessing a catastrophic crime.â€ The prime minister’s office quickly distanced itself from Zubaie’s comments, saying in a statement that they â€œdo not represent the government’s point of viewâ€. Sunni politician Alaa Maki also blamed Shiite extremists, claiming they were out to wipe out the Sunni minority.
â€œWe demand the presidency, the prime minister and the parliament stand against this agenda,â€ Maki said. â€œThe situation is very serious. If it deteriorates, all of us will be losers.â€ Also Sunday, an American soldier died in a â€œnon-combat related incident,â€ the US command said without giving further details.