DEBBIE ELLIOT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliot.
Iraq's political leaders agreed today to pursue efforts to form a new government. And they condemned the sectarian violence now threatening to plunge the country into all out civil war. President Bush conferred with several of the Iraqi politicians by phone and urged them to block any attempts to sow discord.
His telephone diplomacy follows a week that saw a spiral of violence, beginning with the bombings of a Gold Dome Shiite shrine. Reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques followed and Iraqi police report more than 200 people killed since midweek. Iraq's capital, Baghdad, is in virtual lockdown for a second day. Residents have been allowed to leave their homes only between the hours of four and eight P.M. in the city and in four surrounding provinces.
The curfew is to be lifted for pedestrians in Baghdad at six tomorrow morning, but a vehicle ban will remain in effect. This will keep most workers home in the sprawling capitol. NPR's John Hendren has our story from Baghdad.
JOHN HENDREN reporting:
The loudspeaker on an American Humvee warns a lone driver to go home for another ten hours. Nearby, nervous Iraqi police, out in unusually high numbers, fire warning shots over the cars of curfew scofflaws. What's missing over the drone of this Humvee is the incessant honking of the thousands of cars that usually crowd Baghdad's streets. The lockdown is an effort to avert a full scale civil war amid a spade of sectarian violence that follows a series of deadly attacks on Sunni mosques three days ago.
Sunni nationalists who miss the power they enjoyed under the regime of Saddam Hussein had long been said to be behind the insurgency and attacks on Iraq's majority Shiites. But a series of what appears to be high profile retaliatory attacks by Shiites broadens the risk. Even Major General Rick Lynch, the top American military spokesman in Iraq, raises the prospect of civil war.
Major General RICK LYNCH (American Military Spokesman): No one denies, the Iraqi leadership doesn't deny, the coalition leadership does not deny, the Iraqi security force leadership does not deny, that there is a potential for civil war. That there is, indeed, and enemy that wants to flame sectarian violence and drive a wedge between the factions here in Iraq.
HENDREN: On its best days, Baghdad is one of the world's most violent cities with a recent average of ten murders a day. Since Wednesday, the murder rate quadrupled during a three day spree of 119 killings. There were 75 on Thursday alone. American military officials say the curfew has worked. By mid-afternoon today, no murders were reported. U.S. Military officials are wary of further inflaming tensions, so they've largely stopped American patrols in the city's tense neighborhoods, sticking to main thoroughfares instead. As a brigade commander for the fourth infantry division, Colonel Mike Beech is responsible for some of Baghdad's most ethnically fractured districts.
Colonel MIKE BEACH (Brigade Commander, 4th Infantry Division): I couldn't stand here and tell y'all that I'm not concerned about sectarian violence emerging or cascading beyond what it currently is. Of course I am. And that's why I spend all night and all today out on the streets with those Iraqi security forces. We're there for them and we're there to assist them and help them in any way they can. But we all know in order for this government and this country to be successful, they've gotta be the ones to do it and I can't do it for them.
HENDREN: That leaves the brunt of the security effort on Iraqi troops. Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi says a civil war in Iraq would never end and Iraqi forces will do what is necessary to avoid it, even if it means filling the streets with tanks and armored vehicles. But even then, says General Mubdar Hatim, head of the Iraqi Army's 6th Brigade, there are limits to the protection the army can offer the hundreds of mosques and churches in central Iraq.
Major General MUBDAR HATIM (Commanding General, 6th Iraqi Army Division): (through translator) There are many houses of worship and we can't protect them all for days and weeks and months. But it's necessary to protect these places because if we don't these terrorist operations will be repeated to get Iraqis to fight each other.
HENDREN: Over and over, American and Iraqi officials insist that they expect to avert a civil war. First, General Lynch.
Maj. Gen. LYNCH: So we're seeing pockets of violence, but we're not seeing civil war.
HENDREN: And then Zalmay Khalilzad, the American Ambassador to Iraq, who spoke to reporters in a teleconference rather than risk having them show up to a news conference an hour before the curfew resumed tonight.
Mr. ZALMAY KHALILZAD (American Ambassador to Iraq): Efforts by terrorists and those who are enemies of Iraq and want to promote civil war will continue but the response on the part of the Iraqis to come together to defeat them must also continue.
HENDREN: With his capital in lockdown, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani got a phone call from President Bush, who thanked Talabani for his efforts to unify the fractured country. The Iraqi President assured bush that all Iraqi parties are working to form a unified national government. Embassy officials say the curfew could be extended in the capital after tomorrow. The question no one can answer is what will happen after it's lifted. John Hendren, NPR News, Baghdad.