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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Sistani calls for end to violence
Ali al-Sistani
Ayatollah Sistani said future independence was at risk
Iraq's most prominent Shia cleric, Ali al-Sistani, has called for an end to sectarian "hatred and violence".

The grand ayatollah said the violence would only prolong the presence of US forces in the country.

His call came as the US military admitted the level of violence was little changed since a large security crackdown in Baghdad last month.

A number of people were killed in fresh violence in the capital and other parts of the country on Thursday.

'Blind violence'

Correspondents say the ayatollah's comments were his strongest public statements on the issue of sectarian violence in recent months.

We have not witnessed the reduction in violence one would have hoped for in a perfect world
US Maj Gen William Caldwell

"I call on all sons of Iraq... to be aware of the danger threatening their nation's future and stand shoulder to shoulder in confronting it by rejecting hatred and violence," he said.

Ayatollah Sistani said the bombing in February of a Shia shrine in Samarra had unleashed "blind violence".

Unless halted the violence would "harm the unity of the people and block their hopes of liberation and independence for a long time", he said.

The US military on Wednesday again urged the Sunni and Shia communities to root out militias and death squads.

But the US military admitted on Thursday the massive security clampdown that followed the killing of al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had achieved only a "slight downtick" in violence.

The security plan included up to 50,000 police and soldiers on the streets of Baghdad and more checkpoints and raids on violent areas.

US Maj Gen William Caldwell said: "We have not witnessed the reduction in violence one would have hoped for in a perfect world."

The US said attacks had risen from an average of 24 a day between 14 June and 13 July to about 34 a day over the past five days.

The threat of sectarian violence has caused an increasing internal refugee problem.

Iraq's migration ministry said more than 30,000 people had registered as refugees this month alone, bringing the total of people seeking help since the Samarra bombing to 162,000.

In other developments on Thursday:

  • A US marine died as a result of hostile action in western Anbar province, the military said

  • At least three car bombs exploded in Baghdad - one killing three people and injuring 10 in a market area in Shula, police say

  • Iraq's National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie says Iraq will be in charge of security in eight of the country's 18 provinces by the end of the year.

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