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Curfew quells mass upheaval in Iraq, but attacks kill at least 24

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Despite a rash of insurgent attacks Sunday that killed at least 24 people, an anxious calm settled over Iraq after four days of rage triggered by the bombing of a Shiite shrine that threatened to plunge the country into all-out civil war.

The relative calm stemmed in part from a curfew that banned vehicular traffic in the country's four central provinces, including Baghdad. Iraqis voiced anxiety over what would happen once the curfew is lifted Monday morning.

Even so, Sunday was pocked by sporadic violence, as attackers launched several mortar attacks in one Baghdad neighborhood, killing 16, police said. Elsewhere in Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed two U.S. soldiers and a third was shot, the U.S. military said. Clashes also broke out near a Sunni mosque in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Ghaziliyah, police said. And in Basra, an explosive detonated in a Shiite mosque's washroom, killing three.

Such attacks paled beside the mass upheaval that erupted after Wednesday's attack on the Askariya shrine, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, in the largely Sunni city of Samarra. Ever since, the nation has seemed torn between those who want to spark a civil war and those desperate to avoid it.

On Sunday the latter seemed to be prevailing, despite the violence, as politicians, residents and clerics said everyone was taking subtle steps to avoid widespread fighting.

"Iraq cannot handle another catastrophic event," said Hassan Mohammed Khalid, 46, of Tikrit, a northern Sunni city.

The collapse of the Askariya shrine's golden dome, in one of the biggest attacks since the end of Saddam's Hussein's regime, shook the country so deeply that even Shiite clerics had a tough time tempering their followers' anger.

"It's a time of testing for the Iraqis," said Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, on Sunday. "They've stared into the abyss a bit, and I think they've all concluded that further violence, further tension between the communities, is not in their interest." Hadley spoke from Washington on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a key figure in containing strife, encouraged his supporters to refrain from violence. In a speech, he charged that U.S. forces are using Saddamists, Baathists and other enemies of Iraq to spark a civil war because America wants to split the nation.

"Do you want to cavort with the occupiers?" Sadr asked, referring to Americans. Thousands responded, chanting, "No, no to the occupiers. No, no to Satan."

If not, al-Sadr continued, "do not assault the houses of God. Love each other and be brothers so our country will be stable, safe and independent from the occupation. We want to get the occupiers out of the country."

Even some of the largely Shiite Iraqi police and army forces, which Sunnis say raid their neighborhoods, tried to defuse tensions.

On Sunday "there were soldiers from the Iraqi army in (the Baghdad neighborhood of) Yarmouk playing football with the children, and one soldier is teaching a child how to ride a bicycle. The residents are offering food and tea to the soldiers," said Ahmed Salih, 27. "This is the first time I have seen this in a Sunni area. I hope it is a good sign."

Despite the burgeoning optimism, many Iraqis said they were preparing nonetheless to fight their rival sect if called to action.

"We learned our lesson. We are prepared to help Sunnis in Baghdad" by taking up arms and traveling south, said Ibrahim al Jumaa, 39, a Sunni grocer from Tikrit. But "I hope everything will settle down."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Zaineb Obeid in Baghdad and Hassan al Jubouri in Tikrit contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.