Gunmen massacre 20 from Baghdad bus station

Gunmen stormed a bus station north-east of Baghdad on Wednesday and seized 24 people, killing all but four of them, authorities said.

An Iraqi general said the victims were Shi’ites, but police said their identities were unclear.

The gunmen arrived in several cars at the bus station in Muqdadiyah, about 90km north-east of Baghdad, at about 6am, forced the captives into four vehicles they commandeered at the scene and sped away, officials said.

Major General Ahmed al-Awad, the commander of the Iraqi army’s 5th Division, told government television that 20 bodies were later found and the victims were Shi’ites. He said four people were rescued.

Al-Awad said the attackers separated the Shi’ites from the Sunnis, and then took the Shi’ites to the nearby village of Ballour. He said nearly 400 Iraqi soldiers raided the village and rescued the four survivors.
The other captives had already been moved to the area where the bodies were found, he said. Al-Awad accused local police of failing to intervene.

But police said the identities had not been determined and they didn’t know whether all the dead were Shi’ites. The Muqdadiyah area has a slight Sunni majority and is located in a province where sectarian tension runs high.

The massacre is part of a surge in sectarian violence that began on Sunday when Shi’ite gunmen ramped through a Baghdad neighbourhood, killing Sunnis. At least 60 people were killed across Iraq on Tuesday, most of them in the Baghdad area.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that sectarian unrest was threatening the future of the nation.

“We all have the last chance to reconcile and agree among each others on avoiding conflict and blood. If we fail, God forbid, I don’t know what the fate of Iraq will be,” al-Maliki said during an address to Parliament.

The United States had hoped that a unity government of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds could calm sectarian tensions and convince insurgents to lay down their arms so that US and its coalition partners could begin withdrawing troops starting this year.

But more than 1 607 Iraqis have been killed and nearly 2 500 wounded since al-Maliki’s unity government took office on May 20, according to an Associated Press count.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the new Iraqi government is not yet ready to decide on security issues that will determine the pace of US troop reductions this year.

Rumsfeld, who made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Wednesday, said the Iraqis are embarked “on a comprehensive review” of their security requirements, as well an effort to reconcile Sunni and Shi’ite groups to broaden political support for the government.

Asked how long that might take, he said: “I don’t talk deadlines.”

Muqdadiyah was the site of a recent Iraqi military operation aimed at stopping an increase in insurgent activity in the mostly farm area, where tensions between Shi’ites and Sunnis run high.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political group, complained last week that US and Iraqi troops had surrounded 15 mostly Sunni villages near the city and called on them to allow the entry of food and medicine and to compensate farmers for damage to their crops.

Shi’ite lawmaker Sheik Jalaluddin al-Saghir told a session of Parliament that 50 to 60 Shi’ites were abducted in the attack. But police in Diyala province, where Muqdadiyah is located, later put the figure at 24 and said it included Shi’ites and Sunnis.

Also on Wednesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a restaurant in the south-eastern mixed Sunni-Shi’ite neighbourhood of New Baghdad, killing eight people and wounding 30, local police chief Colonel Ahmed Aboud said.

Gunmen on a motorcycles killed a former member of the ousted Ba’ath Party and a taxi driver in separate attacks in Kut, 160km south-east of Baghdad.

A parked car bomb also exploded near an Iraqi army base in Haswa, 50km south of Baghdad, wounding eight people, while gunmen attacked an army patrol to the north of the capital, wounding four soldiers, police said.

Despite the sectarian bloodshed, flyers circulated in a predominantly Sunni area north of Baghdad, urging Shi’ite families not to flee and warning people not to hurt members of the majority sect. The fliers were purported signed by the Mujahedin Shura Council, an umbrella organisation of several Islamic extremist groups, including al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In another positive sign, the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in Parliament, lifted its legislative boycott and attended Wednesday’s session. It thanked the Parliament for its help in seeking the release of kidnapped legislator Tayseer al-Mashhadani and called for a new spirit of cooperation.

During his speech to Parliament, al-Maliki urged his countrymen to unite behind his administration’s efforts to stem the bloodshed.

“It is not only the government that should be responsible. You chose the ministers and the prime ministers. You should not stand up and criticise the government,” al-Maliki said in an apparent reference to some legislators who criticised the government because of the bad security situation.

He also said that insurgents have plans to take control of Khark, a large swath of western Baghdad that extends north.

“They have intentions to occupy Khark, but be sure that Iraqi forces are capable of repulsing them and have started striking them,” he said. “The government cannot protect every child and every woman. Military forces will deter anyone who tries to occupy any area.”

The prime minister added that the government will work on cleaning up the security and armed forces in order “to make them far from political groups and sectarianism”.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press reporters Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Bushra Juhi and Qais al-Bashir contributed to this report from Baghdad

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