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Political crisis pushes Iraq toward sectarian war

Violence fuels criticism of US troop pullout

Thaier al-Sudani/REUTERS

Police officers searched Shi’ite pilgrims yesterday in Baghdad, where the latest bomb attacks killed 19 people.

BAGHDAD - More than 90 people have died in blasts across Iraq in less than a week, including 19 people killed in attacks in the Baghdad area yesterday, while the protracted political standoff between Shi’ite and Sunni leaders shows no sign of ending.

The troubled start of an Iraq era without United States forces has fueled critics of the Obama administration’s decision to remove all forces last month. They question the assertion that America’s long war was wound down responsibly.

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Three car bombs exploded last night in the Iraqi capital and killed at least 17 people, sinking the country deeper into sectarian violence, authorities said.

The attacks began with a roadside bomb blast in the morning in the Baghdad suburb of Awairij. Officials said that explosion killed two pilgrims walking to the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, to commemorate Arbaeen, the end of a 40-day observance of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered Shi’ite figure.

In the evening, one car bomb went off in the western neighborhood of al-Muwasalat, which is largely Sunni. However, authorities said that blast, which killed nine, appeared to have targeted Shi’ite pilgrims also making their way to Karbala.

Another car bomb struck near a police vehicle in the Shi’ite neighborhood of al-Sha’ab, killing three police officers and four other people, police and hospital officials said.

Security forces discovered a third car bomb in a predominantly Sunni area in western Baghdad later in the evening. It exploded while a demolition team was trying to defuse it, killing a soldier, officials said.

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The leaders of Iraq’s rival sects have been locked in a political crisis since last month, when authorities in the Shi’ite-dominated government called for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi’s arrest on terrorism charges just as the last American troops were leaving the country. Hashemi is Iraq’s highest ranking Sunni politician.

The standoff pits the leaders of the country’s mostly ethnic- and sectarian-based party blocs against each other. Iraq’s Sunni minority dominated the government under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, but since he was overthrown, Shi’ites have been in control.

Many fear the crisis will push Iraq toward a renewal of the large-scale sectarian warfare that pushed the country to the brink of civil war five years ago.

Hashemi fled several weeks ago to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where he is effectively out of reach of state security forces. He said yesterday that Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demand that he be turned over for trial in Baghdad is hurting efforts to end the crisis.

The Obama administration is defending the military withdrawal from Iraq, after the two countries were unable to agree on whether American troops should be granted legal immunity.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview Sunday that “periodic acts of violence’’ in Iraq, like those seen recently, are not new and that the thousands of US civilians working there can be safe under Iraqi protection.

“We’re confident that we have an Iraqi government and an Iraqi security force that is capable of dealing with the security threats that are there now,’’ Panetta told CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’

But the president’s decision to remove all but a few military advisers and focus on diplomatic efforts has come under criticism during the election year.

“In all due respect, Iraq is unraveling. It’s unraveling because we did not keep residual forces there,’’ said Senator John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain, of Arizona, also spoke on the CBS program.

Administration officials acknowledge that Iraq is mired in its worst government crisis since Hussein’s ouster, with no obvious answers because of longstanding sectarian and regional rivalries, and newer schisms caused by political maneuvering. The task is Iraq’s now, they insist, with the United States only advising and providing aid.

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