New leadership crisis as Iraq descends into anarchy

A bomb ripped through a vegetable market in a Shia section of Baghdad and a senior Sunni leader escaped assassination as at least 36 people were killed yesterday in a surge of violence that pushed Iraq closer still to sectarian civil war.

An aide to Ibrahim al- Jaafari, the Prime Minister, meanwhile, lashed out at Sunni, Kurdish and secular political leaders who have mounted a campaign to deny him another term, saying the Shia United Iraqi alliance will not change its candidate.

Haider al-Ibadi accused Mr Jaafari's critics of trying to delay the formation of a new government. "There are some elements who have personal differences with Mr Jaafari. The Alliance is still sticking to its candidate," he said.

Leaders of three parties, including Sunnis, Kurds and the secularists of the former prime minister Iyad Allawi, agreed on Wednesday to ask the main Shia bloc to withdraw Mr Jaafari's nomination for prime minister. Shia officials confirmed receiving a letter asking them to put forward a new candidate.

The move raises a new hurdle in US-backed talks on an inclusive government, which broke down last week when Sunni parties pulled out in protest against attacks on Sunni mosques triggered by the bombing on 22 February of the golden-domed Askari shrine, a Shia mosque in the central city of Samarra.

Hundreds were killed in the sectarian fury that followed. They included 45 Sunni preachers and mosque staff, according to Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie, the head of the government's Sunni Endowment, which takes care of Sunni mosques and shrines. He told a news conference that 37 Sunni mosques were destroyed and 86 were damaged by grenades, rockets or gunfire. Six others remained in the hands of Shia militiamen, he said.

Yesterday's bomb attack in the Baghdad vegetable market killed at least eight people and wounded 14. Police evacuated the market after finding a second bomb. Another bomb exploded in a minibus travelling through Sadr City, a Shia ghetto in the Baghdad, killing five.

Gunmen also attacked the car of Adnan al-Dulaimi, the senior Sunni cleric who leads the Sunnis' largest parliamentary bloc. One bodyguard was killed. Mr Dulaimi had already sped away in another vehicle.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the government announced a one-day ban on private vehicles in Baghdad and its outskirts.Police and army were instructed to seal off the capital and seize any private vehicles that defy the ban.

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