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Last Updated: Friday, 24 February 2006, 19:26 GMT
Friday prayer plea for Iraq calm
Prayers at Sadr City, Baghdad
Worshippers in Baghdad heard pleas for restraint
Shia and Sunni Muslim leaders in Iraq and abroad have used Friday prayers to call for calm amid sectarian strife sparked by an attack on an Iraq shrine.

Clerics issued appeals for restraint and unity, although attendance in Baghdad and three provinces was hit by a curfew allowing travel only on foot.

At least 130 people - mostly Sunnis - have died since the al-Askari shrine, holy to Shias, was bombed on Wednesday.

The bombing and reprisals have sparked fears of a descent into civil war.

US President George W Bush on Friday urged restraint, saying: "This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people."

The Iraqi government has now ordered the 2000 to 1600 (1700-1300 GMT) curfew to be reimposed for Friday night and Saturday in Baghdad and the provinces of Diyala, Babil and Salahuddine.

'Conspiracy'

Iraq's most influential Shia political leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, said the bombers who attacked the shrine in Samarra "do not represent Sunnis in Iraq".

Anyone who attacks a Muslim is not a Muslim
Moqtada Sadr,
Shia cleric

In a televised statement, Mr Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, blamed the militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and loyalists of former leader Saddam Hussein.

"We all have to unite in order to eliminate them," he said.

The theme was echoed in sermons in the Iraqi Shia heartland of the south.

Despite the curfew in Baghdad, followers of radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr attended his sermon in the Sadr City district, hearing him urge restraint.

"We are not enemies but brothers," he told them. "Anyone who attacks a Muslim is not a Muslim."

Map showing the Iraqi provinces under curfew

A large crowd similarly attended prayers at the Abu Hanifa mosque, Baghdad's most important Sunni site.

Imam Ahmed Hasan al-Taha said the bombing was a conspiracy to draw Iraqis into sectarian conflict.

In Saudi Arabia, top cleric Saleh Al Talib said at his sermon at Mecca's Grand Mosque: "It is not in Iraq's interest to rush to blame people, or take revenge."

Several joint Sunni-Shia protests were held on Friday in Basra, Kut and Mosul to appeal for calm and national unity.

A joint sermon was planned for al-Askari but police turned away 700 worshippers amid the curfew.

Away from the mosques, Baghdad's streets were almost deserted.

The curfew appeared to have blunted the spate of violence that followed the bombing but some attacks and other incidents have still been reported, among them:

  • Twelve bodies are reportedly found overnight in Baghdad

  • The US military says it has killed al-Qaeda's leader in northern Iraq, Abu Asma, who it says was an explosives expert

  • Two policemen are killed by a roadside bomb in Samarra, the scene of the al-Askari shrine attack

  • Three Shias are killed by gunmen who storm their house in the town of Latifiya, south of Baghdad

  • Iraq's Minister for Construction and Housing Jassim Mohammed Jaafar says he escaped a bomb attack on Thursday

Bush's call

Despite the pleas for calm, the political situation remains tense.

Iraqi security forces man a checkpoint at a deserted intersection
Most of Baghdad's streets were deserted during the curfew

In protest at the unrest, the main Sunni alliance said it was pulling out of the emergency talks convened by President Jalal Talabani after the string of attacks on Sunnis.

The Association of Muslim Scholars - the main Sunni religious authority - said at least 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked since the bombing.

The government could confirm only that 19 had been attacked in Baghdad.

The Sunni alliance also announced its withdrawal from negotiations to form a coalition government.

President Bush in Washington urged Iraqis to retain their focus on democracy.

"We can expect the coming days will be intense," he said.

"Iraq remains a serious situation, but I'm optimistic because the Iraqi people have spoken... They want their freedom."


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See Baghdad's deserted streets under daylight curfew





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