Iraq civil war fears grow as sectarian violence spreads

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Sectarian fighting among Shia and Sunnis spread across Iraq amid renewed warnings that the country is sliding into civil war.

Tensions over the country's new constitution - approved by the Shia and Kurds but rejected by Sunnis - as well as continuing anger surrounding the stampede death of almost 1,000 Shia pilgrims spilt into violence.

After months of attacks on Shia targets by Sunni insurgents designed to start, the government claimed, an internecine religious conflict, the first signs came of a Shia backlash.

A young girl was killed yesterday in a gun battle in Baghdad that followed a march by hundreds of Shias on the al-Aima bridge where most of the stampede deaths had taken place.

Soldiers guarding the bridge opened fire on the demonstrators. Sunnis on the other side of the River Tigris, believing they were under attack from the Shia marchers then opened fire themselves, in turn drawing fire from Shia gunmen.

Two separate blasts in a Sunni neighbourhood led to two deaths and Sunni residents said they had been subjected to sniper fire and petrol bomb attacks.

Gunmen opened fire on Sunni Muslim worshippers at Friday prayers in two mosques south of Baghdad, killing two people and injuring four, police said.

The first attack occurred when a lone gunman entered the Mizael Basha mosque near the town of Zubeir, 20 km (12 miles) south-west of Basra and sprayed automatic fire on worshippers during dawn prayers. One man was killed and four injured, police Col. Nouri al-Fayadh said. Another Sunni mosque, the Rashidiya, was later attacked by a group of gunmen who killed a guard.

Sunnis in the British-controlled south, which is also predominantly British, say the local police force has been heavily infiltrated by Shia militias and were actively encouraging a sectarian campaign.

An American journalist researching the allegations was recently shot dead after being taken by men in police uniforms.

Ali Mohammed, a Sunni schoolteacher, said "the attacks have got much worse. The police even come into our mosques and steal money and valuables."

Meanwhile, bereaved families buried the dead from the stampede and there were angry accusations that Sunni insurgents were behind the massacre.

Ahmed Chasib, 31, whose wife and sister were both killed claimed armed Sunnis had attacked Shia pilgrims during one of their holiest days of the year.

"We were travelling together but when we were near the bridge, the women ahead of us were hit by chemicals coming from Aadhamiya," he said.

Jamal al-Hakim, who lost his 12-year-old son, added: "They (the Sunnis), first of all, attacked us with mortars then they started the rumour that there were suicide bombers. That started the panic."

In a flexing of Shia muscle at least 5,000 people marched in support of the new constitution in Basra.

The march, organized by the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Shia Dawa Party, was larger than rallies against the constitution staged by Sunni Arabs elsewhere in the country in recent weeks.

The two parties are the largest Shia political groupings in Iraq, and their representatives have played a key role in drafting the new charter which will be presented to voters in a referendum on 15 October.

* Iraqi authorities have set 19 October as the date for the start of the trial of Saddam Hussein, an official said yesterday speaking on the condition of anonymity. Authorities want the trial to start soon after Iraqis finish their referendum.