Gunmen kill 15 Shi'ites in northern Baghdad

Gunmen killed 15 employees of a Shi’ite religious foundation on Tuesday, a day after one of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite leaders urged President George Bush to strike harder against Sunni rebels to avert a civil war.

In a separate attack, three car bombs killed 16 people and wounded 25 near a fuel station in a religiously mixed area in southern Baghdad, officials said.

The 15 civilian employees for the Shi’ite Endowment, a body that oversees religious sites and mosques, were killed when their bus was ambushed in the capital, Salah Abdul Razaa, a spokesperson for the Shi’ite Endowment, told Reuters.

Interior Ministry sources said gunmen first set off a car bomb and then sprayed the bus with bullets as it was travelling on a highway in northern Baghdad.

It came a day after Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric and head of the biggest party in Iraq’s government, SCIRI, met Bush in Washington.

Iraq is gripped by tit-for-tat sectarian killings between Shi’ite and Sunnis and many Iraqis fear their oil-rich nation passed the point of no return into sectarian division after the destruction of a Shi’ite shrine in February.

The US envoy and the US military chief in Baghdad implored Iraqis to break a cycle of violence which they said would destroy the country.

Hakim, former leader of his party’s armed militia wing, denied accusations by Saddam Hussein’s once dominant Sunni minority that majority Shi’ites were stoking sectarian violence. He put the onus on Washington to take tougher action against insurgents.

“The strikes they are getting from the multinational forces are not hard enough to put an end to their acts,” he said.

“Eliminating the danger of civil war in Iraq could only be achieved through directing decisive strikes against Baathist terrorists [and other Islamists] in Iraq.”

“Otherwise we’ll continue to witness massacres,” he said in a speech after meeting Bush.

Bush, his Iraq policy under growing criticism even from former allies, said he and Hakim had discussed a need for Iraqi leaders to “reject the extremists that are trying to stop the advance of this young democracy”. - Reuters

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