BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi politicians allied with militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened Friday to resign from the government if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meets next week with President Bush, adding to the pressure on an embattled premier who appears unable to halt his nation's plunge into full-fledged civil war.
Under curfew and under siege, Iraqi men and boys took up arms and stood watch with their neighbors after dark, anticipating attacks from the opposite sect of Islam. Mosques in at least one Sunni Muslim district of Baghdad ordered locals to fire on all strangers except for U.S. troops arriving to help protect them.
At least 55 people died Friday in Sunni-Shiite fighting and other violence, police and witnesses said, though that number was expected to rise as mortar attacks and other clashes continued late into the night. In Baghdad, bands of gunmen rampaged through a Sunni enclave in a predominantly Shiite district, killing some 30 people and torching several mosques and homes, police and witnesses said.
Bush aides in Washington said the meeting scheduled for Wednesday in neighboring Jordan would continue as planned, although al-Maliki's office hadn't issued a public response by midnight Friday in Baghdad.
Calls for a change in the Iraqi government echoed from mosques, political offices and funeral services as al-Maliki, a Shiite, faced a crucial test of his leadership and loyalties: Would he leave Iraq at such a volatile moment to meet with Bush, or stay and work with rival factions on a last-ditch effort to save his country from exploding?
Neither Iraq's political leaders, Iraqi government forces nor U.S. troops have been capable of securing the capital, despite curfews, increased checkpoints and more frequent patrols, and it isn't clear what could halt the escalating violence.
In the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf, funerals began for victims of car bombings that killed more than 200 people Thursday in Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite stronghold, in the deadliest violence since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003.
Accompanied by police escorts and wailing relatives, coffin-laden vans drove from Baghdad to Najaf in an exception to the open-ended citywide curfew that was imposed after the blasts. Outraged mourners, most of them armed with machine guns, said al-Maliki's calls for restraint in the aftermath of the blasts no longer held any appeal.
Women screamed and tore at their clothing. Men shouted for "revenge against the Americans and the terrorists."
Hussam Moussa, 30, who lost five members of his family in the bombings, placed equal blame on those who staged the attacks, presumably Sunni insurgents, and those who failed to prevent them: U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
"We will respond to this cowardly act. We won't spare a single Sunni in Baghdad," Moussa said. "They will see a sectarian war. It's either us or our enemies and, by God, they will see wonders. We will kill infants, women and the elderly. Everything will burn."
Describing Bush as "the killer of Iraqi people," politicians aligned with al-Sadr repeated their demand for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and said Iraqi officials should sever all ties with the United States. Al-Sadr's allies are the backbone of al-Maliki's Cabinet, and even a temporary suspension of their participation would cripple, if not topple, Iraq's fragile U.S.-backed government.
"They are telling the ordinary people that if the American forces withdraw from Iraq, this will provoke more violence. We say, since the minute they stepped on this ground, chaos and instability have spread throughout the country," said Saleh Hassan al-Agili, one of 30 legislators from al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc. "We reiterate that the departure of the occupying forces will restore stability, security and the brotherhood of the Iraqi people."
Residents in some Sunni areas of Baghdad said they saw U.S. patrols in their areas Friday, but a U.S. military spokesman would confirm only troop movements to "enhance existing security arrangements." An American attack helicopter destroyed rocket launchers in Sadr City after Shiite militants there fired six times into a Sunni neighborhood, according to a U.S. military statement. No casualties were reported.
Wire services reported that Shiites burned six Sunni worshipers alive, but Iraqi security forces couldn't confirm the incident, saying the area was too dangerous for their patrols. Spokesmen for al-Sadr denied reports that Shiites executed dozens of Sunni men, but an Iraqi satellite news channel late Friday night quoted police officials saying that residents had taken cell-phone pictures of the killings.
Al-Sadr issued a challenge to his onetime ally and current nemesis, leading Sunni cleric Hareth al-Dhari, during prayers Friday in the southern Shiite city of Kufa.
"I demand Sheik Hareth al-Dhari issue a fatwa (a religious decree) prohibiting the killing of Shiites, so as to spare Muslim blood,"al-Sadr told about 5,000 followers.
He also called on his Sunni counterpart to ban his supporters from joining al-Qaida or other terrorist groups, and to participate in rebuilding a Shiite shrine in Samarra that was heavily damaged in a February bombing that unleashed the sectarian bloodletting.
In exchange for al-Dhari's agreement, al-Sadr said, he'd condemn any aggression against the Sunni cleric, who leads the militant Association of Muslim Scholars. Al-Dhari has been out of the country for several weeks and didn't respond immediately to al-Sadr's challenge.
Al-Sadr also beseeched rival Shiite parties to put aside their political differences and unite in a call for calm. Otherwise, he implied, the central Shiite religious authority, known as the hawza, could become irrelevant.
"Why has the devil made his way between us? This will serve only the colonizers and will harm the hawza," al-Sadr said. "Here is my hand—I put it forward in reconciliation. Will there be a hand reaching out for mine?"
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Qassim Zein in Najaf; Hassan al Jubouri in Tikrit; and Laith Hammoudi, Shatha al Awsy and Mohammed al Awsy in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.