MOSQUES burned and dozens of people were killed in Iraq yesterday as Shiite fighters took revenge for a Sunni suicide bomb attack in which more than 200 people died.
Clashes between US-led forces and gunmen also broke out in the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad, which was hit by the bloodiest bombing of the war on Thursday.
As the victims' funerals took place, political leaders on all sides pleaded for restraint to avoid a descent into all-out civil war.
Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, condemned the "heinous" violence in Iraq and urged people to heed appeals for calm by their religious and political leaders.
But such appeals appear to have fallen on deaf ears as Shiite gunmen took their revenge. One group stormed the Sunni-dominated Hurriya district of Baghdad, burning four mosques and several homes. A police source said 30 people had been killed and 48 wounded. Rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns were used as the militants rampaged through the area.
Imad al-Din al-Hashemi said 14 people had died when the mosque in Hurriya where he had been praying was attacked. He said he had heard of ten deaths in another mosque. "They attacked four mosques with rocket-propelled grenades and machinegun fire," the university academic said.
Six of those killed were grabbed as they left Friday prayers, doused with kerosene and burnt alive near an Iraqi army post. The soldiers did not intervene, according to police.
The interior ministry said residents were appealing for firefighters and ambulances but the area was too dangerous for police to send reinforcements. In northern Iraq, meanwhile, two suicide bombs ripped through a Shiite market, killing 22 people.
"The situation is now moving to some sort of open civil war," Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said.
Dozens of funerals of those killed in the Sadr City suicide bomb attacks took place yesterday. Thousands of mourners walked on foot behind cars laden with coffins as they began their journey south to the holy city of Najaf, the traditional burial site for pious Shiites.
A US helicopter shot at one group of mourners after they fired handguns into the air.
The radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Shiite Mehdi Army which controls Sadr City, told chanting supporters in a sermon that the most prominent religious figure from the Sunni minority must issue a fatwa demanding an end to the killing of Shiites.
He has also demanded that Nuri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, cancel a summit next week with George Bush, the US president.
One of his political aides said the faction would pull out of the US-backed national unity government and from parliament if Mr Maliki went ahead with his planned meeting with Mr Bush.
The US president is expected to discuss with Mr Maliki ways of giving Iraqi security forces more control to raise the prospect of US troops starting to withdraw. But the competence and loyalties of the American-trained Iraqi forces are in grave doubt.
Mr Maliki is under pressure from an increasingly anxious Washington to make good on promises to disband the Mehdi Army and other Shiite militias, which US officials say control parts of the police and army.
But the prime minister is dependent on the Sadr faction and fellow Shiite Islamists to maintain his position. The Mehdi Army rose up twice in 2004 against US forces.
Sunnis were the dominant minority under Saddam Hussein and are the source of the long insurgency against US occupation. But many Sunnis also fear a rapid withdrawal of the 140,000 American troops could unleash an all-out offensive by Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
LATEST BRITISH DEATH IS 126TH
A BRITISH soldier was shot dead during a search and detention operation in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the Ministry of Defence said yesterday.
The soldier - as yet unnamed - was a member of the Parachute Regiment on secondment to the headquarters of the Multinational Division South East, Iraq.
His next of kin have been informed. The MoD said in a statement: "The soldier sustained gunshot wounds during the operation and was evacuated to a nearby military hospital.
"Despite the best possible medical care, the soldier later died from his injuries."
His death brings to 126 the number of British military personnel killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion.