BAGHDAD -- Iraq's interim prime minister warned yesterday that insurgents are trying to foment sectarian civil war as well as derail elections, while thousands of mourners turned out for funerals in the Shi'ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala a day after car bombs killed 67 people.
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said the mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents, blamed for Sunday's bloody attacks, want to ''create ethnic and religious tensions, problems, and conflicts . . . to destroy the unity of this country."
''These attacks are designed to stop the political process from taking place in Iraq," Allawi said. He added that his administration would not be deterred despite expecting more strikes before key Jan. 30 parliamentary elections -- the first free vote in Iraq since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958.
Although members of his Cabinet have made similar warnings about the danger of a civil war, Allawi himself had regularly played down that possibility.
Political and religious leaders of the Shi'ite community also have discounted the threat of an armed conflict with Sunnis, instructing their followers not to react violently to attacks. These included a bombing in August 2003 that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the main Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
In an attack in Karbala yesterday, a bomb exploded at a police checkpoint, damaging nearby buildings but inflicting no casualties. Police said they arrested the attacker. In Najaf, police said they defused a bomb stashed in a car.
Shi'ite Muslims, who make up around 60 percent of Iraq's people, have been strong supporters of the electoral process, which they expect to reverse the longtime domination of Iraq's Sunni minority. The insurgency is believed to draw most of its support from Sunnis, who provided much of Saddam Hussein's former Ba'ath Party leadership.
Shi'ite officials and clerics blamed Sunnis for Sunday's bombings, which caused the worst carnage in Iraq since July. The strikes appeared designed to cause heavy casualties, and provoke reprisals by Shi'ites against Sunnis.
The bombings, aimed at a funeral procession in Najaf and a packed bus station in Karbala, again highlighted the capability of the guerrillas to strike. Their attacks have undermined confidence in repeated assertions by US military commanders that the capture of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah last month dealt a serious blow to the insurgency.
President Bush agreed yesterday that violence remains a significant problem in Iraq and said US-trained Iraqi troops are not ready to take over security duties. He also cautioned that the election is only the beginning of a long process toward democracy.
''I certainly don't expect the process to be trouble-free," he said at a news conference in Washington.
The head of Iraq's electoral commission appealed to security forces to protect his officials after three were shot to death in a daylight attack Sunday by dozens of guerrillas in the heart of Baghdad. The ambush was the latest attack to target Iraqi officials working to organize the vote.
''We send an appeal to the Iraqi government and all the people to protect our employees," Abdul Hussein Al-Hindawi said. ''We have no real protection because we work everywhere in the country and have more than 6,000 employees."
In New York, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan strongly condemned Sunday's violence and called on Iraqis ''to come together in a spirit of national reconciliation," UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
''No cause can justify the killings of innocent civilians and the cold-blooded murder of election workers," Eckhard said.
Allawi said yesterday that a big factor in the strength of the insurgency was the dismantling of Iraq's security forces after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam's regime.
''What is happening is that we are facing an enemy heavily supported even in some cases with superior weapons," he said. ''We will have setbacks, we are having setbacks, but we are determined to continue the fight."
Police and troops were nowhere to be seen Sunday while the gunmen conducted spot checks of cars and their occupants on Haifa Street, the capital's main thoroughfare. It was only after the insurgents had fled after the slayings of the election workers that US
There have been fears the intimidation campaign aimed at electoral workers will not only hurt preparations for the ballot, but also could reduce voter turnout enough to bring the legitimacy of the election into question.
As mourners went to funerals in Najaf yesterday, police imposed a ban on cars entering the downtown area that houses the Imam Ali shrine to prevent future bombings, Governor Adnan al-Zurufi said.
Najaf police chief Ghalib al-Jazaari said 50 people had been arrested in connection with the bombings. Some of them confessed to having links with the intelligence services of neighboring Syria and Iran, he said.
Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan has accused both Iran and Syria of supporting terrorism in Iraq, although Allawi dismissed the allegations yesterday, saying they did not reflect the government's position.
Iran's supreme leader yesterday called the planned elections a sham, saying they were designed to help the United States keep control of Iraq's oil wealth.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also accused America and Israel of being behind the bombings in Iraq. ''I am sure that the hands of the US and Israeli espionage networks are behind recent events," he told government officials, according to Iranian state television.
Also yesterday, a roadside bomb near Baghdad's airport destroyed a US Army Humvee, the military said.