BAGHDAD, Iraq—Hopes that new security initiatives launched by the Iraqi government would quell sectarian tensions were dashed Friday when a bomber who hid explosives in his shoes killed Shiite Muslim worshippers at a Baghdad mosque and a Sunni Muslim cleric was assassinated in the Shiite city of Basra.
Two U.S. soldiers also were missing after insurgents attacked their team late Friday at a traffic checkpoint near Yusufiyah, which is 15 miles southwest of Baghdad. A third soldier was killed, the military said.
Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman, said no further information was available on the missing soldiers.
Baghdad and Basra are focal points of the Iraqi government's new efforts to stem violence, and analysts here agree that the government won't survive its four-year term unless it regains control of Iraq's two largest cities.
Throughout the country, residents and even members of the security forces have begun complaining that the government's efforts are no better then past failed attempts, calling them too simplistic.
But Maj. Gen. James Thurman, the commander of coalition troops in Baghdad, said violence across Baghdad had dropped since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki imposed new security measures this week. Thurman said military officials "expect that trend to continue."
About 30,000 U.S. troops and 31,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers are taking part in the new security operation, Thurman said.
The bombing at the Boratha mosque, which killed at least 13 and wounded 28, came during a four-hour midday curfew that the government imposed specifically to stop attacks on mosques. The curfew is part of al-Maliki's security plan, which also includes sending thousands of Iraqi and coalition forces into Baghdad's streets to man checkpoints and target hot areas.
There were six police checkpoints leading up to the mosque Friday.
Security personnel at the mosque said they first suspected something was awry when they noticed a bulky pair of shoes among those left by worshippers entering the mosque. They found nails and other explosive material in them, said a member of the mosque's security team who wanted to be referred to only as Hajj Haider.
Haider said forces started searching the mosque and found a second pair of suspicious-looking shoes in the bathroom with explosive material missing. Guards began searching for the suicide bomber among those praying.
As a guard approached the bomber, he detonated himself, Haider said, adding that the attacker appeared to be from Saudi Arabia or Yemen.
There was no claim of responsibility, but police officials blamed the group al-Qaida in Iraq, whose leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed June 7 in a U.S. bombing raid near Baqouba. Earlier this week, the group claimed responsibility for multiple car bombs in Kirkuk that killed two dozen.
The Boratha mosque also was attacked April 7. That attack killed nearly 90 people, and U.S. intelligence officials attributed it to al-Qaida in Iraq. The mosque is associated with Iraq's most powerful Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
In Basra, assassins killed a popular, outspoken Sunni cleric, Yousif Yacoub al-Hassaan, as he was headed to his mosque. Hassaan was known as a moderate who appealed to Sunnis and Shiites, and he often led meetings in his mosque between conflicting Muslim groups. Many in Basra said they were shocked that he was targeted.
Shiite leaders in Basra condemned the killing and attacked the government state of emergency that was imposed there June 2.
"The committee that implemented the emergency plan hasn't done anything and doesn't have solutions for the growing challenges in this city," said Ahmed Abu Al Rashid, the head of the Shiite-dominated Badr Organization.
Despite Friday's violence, some political observers warned against declaring the situation dire, saying that security measures are new and the country's problems are complex.
(Contributing to this report were Knight Ridder correspondent Drew Brown in Washington and Knight Ridder special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Mohammed al Awsy in Baghdad.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.