BAGHDAD, Iraq—Marauding mobs that included men in police uniforms went on a killing spree in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar on Wednesday to avenge a massive car bombing, murdering at least 60 Sunni Muslims in a stark reminder that Iraq's sectarian tensions can explode at any provocation.
A year ago, President Bush hailed the predominantly Shiite Muslim city as a model of peace and a sign that the U.S. military strategy in Iraq was working. But order in the city broke down within hours after two car bombs tore through a busy marketplace Tuesday and left up to 80 people dead.
Police officials in Tal Afar said Shiite militias and men in police uniforms stormed through the streets early Wednesday, pulling residents from their homes and executing them. The killings continued until the morning, when Iraqi military and police forces surrounded the city and imposed a curfew.
Forty-five bodies had been taken to Tal Afar's main hospital by noon, residents said. By evening the death toll was 60, with more bodies lying in the streets.
It was the bloodiest in a series of recent revenge attacks outside Baghdad, which underscore Iraq's continued insecurity even as violence in the capital has decreased under a new U.S.-backed security plan.
Over the weekend in Haswa, a mixed Sunni-Shiite city 30 miles south of Baghdad, a truck bomb exploded outside a Shiite mosque, killing 11 people and injuring 34.
Hours later, militants set fire to four Sunni mosques in the city and clashed with guards outside the local headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political party. Party members said 15 attackers were killed.
"Those who are doing such revenge attacks are looking for sectarian war between the Iraqis," said Ayad al-Samaraee, a parliamentarian and senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "But the main point is how the official forces deal with it and prevent any reaction from happening."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, formed a committee of military and police officials to investigate the alleged involvement of police officers in the Tal Afar killings. The parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, said on the floor of the assembly that some police had taken part in the bloodshed.
"Some of the members of the Ministries of Interior and Defense are involved, trying to inflame the sectarian war," la-Mashhadani said. "These things must be considered seriously."
The violence came as authorities thwarted two attempts by insurgents to set off chlorine bombs, the war's most recent terrorist weapon.
In Fallujah, Iraqi soldiers spotted two trucks approaching a government compound and fired on them, detonating the bombs before they reached the entrance, the U.S. military said. Fifteen American and Iraqi service members received minor injuries from the explosions, the U.S. military said.
An attempted chlorine attack in Ramadi failed when coalition troops, acting on information from residents, discovered an unexploded truck bomb, the American military said.
The attacks brought to at least seven the number of chlorine bombs used in Iraq since late January, and Iraqi police issued a public warning Wednesday on the dangers of such attacks, which can be especially perilous for children because the gas is heavier than air and sinks to the ground once it's released. The gas can cause serious lung damage.
Several young victims of an attack March 17 in Fallujah remain in a U.S.-run hospital.
On Monday, the outgoing American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had warned that al-Qaida in Iraq's Sunni militants were trying to derail the Baghdad security plan by setting off car bombs in Shiite areas of the capital "to provoke Shia groups to target Sunnis . . . in revenge or retaliation."
Tuesday's car bombing in Tal Afar—for which the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group of Sunni militants that's linked to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility—happened far outside Baghdad, however.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have worked together in an effort to drive insurgents from Tal Afar, a city of 200,000, and President Bush said last March that the military operation there "gives me confidence in our strategy."
But the tit-for-tat killings this week raised concerns that the city is poised for open sectarian warfare.
Tal Afar's mayor, Najim Abdullah al-Jubouri, said he hadn't confirmed that police officers were involved in Wednesday's rampage, which he called a reaction to Tuesday's car bombing. But he said his office had received information that the rampage would result in more car bombings.
"If that happens the city will be totally devastated," he said.
A roundup of violence in Iraq is posted daily at www.mcclatchydc.com. Click on "Iraq war coverage."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Hassan al Jubouri contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.