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Curfew helps stem violence in Iraq

Religious leaders and Bush issue appeals for calm

BAGHDAD -- Appeals from religious leaders and an unusual daytime curfew yesterday curbed violence that claimed more than 140 lives across Iraq after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine. President Bush joined in calling for calm, saying, ''This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people."

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari reached out to Sunnis and Shi'ites, promising to rebuild the Shi'ites' Askariya shrine in Samarra and Sunni mosques damaged in two days of reprisal attacks.

The daytime curfew kept most vehicles and pedestrians off the streets of Baghdad, preventing many people from reaching mosques for the main Muslim prayer service of the week but also blunting protests and preventing attacks.

People were allowed to walk to neighborhood mosques, many of which were guarded by heavily armed Iraqi police and soldiers. Preachers at several leading mosques urged their followers to maintain calm for the sake of the nation.

But sectarian anger remained high after Wednesday's destruction of a famed Shi'ite shrine, as did the threat of more violence.

The Iraqi government announced another daytime curfew for today in Baghdad and the surrounding provinces of Salaheddin, Babil, and Diyala. And the US military said it would carry out additional security patrols for another 48 hours.

Late yesterday, two rockets were fired in a village southeast of Baghdad that includes a tomb revered by Shi'ites. There was no damage to the tomb, US and Iraqi officials said.

Two more rockets exploded in the British Embassy compound in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, causing minor injuries to two British workers, the US military reported.

Police found at least 27 bodies yesterday in Baghdad and other cities and towns. Many were believed to have been victims of sectarian violence, including five Shi'ite men killed by gunmen who burst into their home in Latifiyah south of Baghdad.

In Samarra, a roadside bomb killed two police officers, and a husband and wife in a passing vehicle were injured when police opened fire after the attack, police said. In Washington, Bush warned Americans to expect more bloodshed and more political wrangling in Iraq.

''We can expect the coming days will be intense," the president said in a speech to a veterans' group. ''But I'm optimistic because the Iraqi people have spoken and made their intentions clear."

''They want their freedom. They want their country to be a democracy," Bush said.

The Shi'ite-Sunni confrontation threatens to scuttle US hopes for a government that will include Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties. The Bush administration hopes such a government can win the trust of the Sunni Arab community, the backbone of the insurgency, calming the violence so American troops can begin heading home.

However, the biggest Sunni political bloc in parliament withdrew from talks on a new government to protest the attacks on Sunni mosques. US officials remain hopeful the Sunnis will return to the discussions, but the crisis may delay forming the government, which had been expected by mid-May.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged the grave danger facing Iraq, but said the attack on the shrine also presented the country with a ''moment of opportunity."

''I think this attack has had a major impact here, getting everyone's attention that Iraq is in danger . . . that they must lead and compromise with each other to bring the people of Iraq together and to save this country," he told reporters.

In an overture to the Sunnis, the country's top Shi'ite political leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, issued a statement expressing regret over the deaths of all Iraqis. He said those who carried out the Samarra attack ''do not represent the Sunnis in Iraq," blaming Saddam Hussein loyalists and religious extremists from Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

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