September 2, 2006

Pakistani, Indian pilgrims slain in Iraq

By Ross Colvin

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Fourteen Pakistani and Indian Shi'ite
pilgrims were abducted and killed in Iraq's western desert,
police said on Saturday, victims of sectarian strife between
Sunnis and Shi'ites that threatens civil war.

In his weekly radio address, U.S. President George. W Bush
told Americans that Iraq was not in civil war, despite a bloody
week in which hundreds more died and a grim Pentagon report
said spreading violence may turn into just such an all-out

"Our commanders and diplomats on the ground believe that
Iraq has not descended into a civil war," Bush said. "They
report that only a small number of Iraqis are engaged in
sectarian violence, while the overwhelming majority want peace
and a normal life in a unified country."

The top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,
issued a new call for restraint after meeting Shi'ite Islamist
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the holy city of Najaf and
warned the government to act quickly to avoid disaster.

Key to Washington's strategy of averting all-out sectarian
conflict has been the build-up of Iraqi security forces to help
enforce the authority of Maliki's three-month-old national
unity government, which has so far failed to quell the

A ceremony in which Iraq was to assume operational command
of its new armed forces from U.S. generals was postponed at the
last minute amid confusion. The U.S. military insisted it was
just poor planning, not a sign of deeper disagreement.

The slain pilgrims, 11 Pakistanis and three Indians, had
been traveling to holy Shi'ite sites in Iraq on Thursday when
they were attacked in Anbar province, the desert heartland of
the Sunni insurgency, Iraqi and Indian officials said.

An official at the al-Hussein hospital in the Shi'ite holy
city of Kerbala, where the bodies were taken on Friday, said
the 14 men had their hands bound and had been shot in the head.
Some had been tortured and one was partially decapitated.

An attack on a revered Shi'ite shrine in February has
unleashed bloodletting between majority Shi'ites and minority
Sunni Muslims who were politically dominant under Saddam
Hussein and now form the backbone of the three-year-old

"If the state is unable to ensure security for the people
then this will open the way for some groups to do this and this
would be very risky," Sistani said in a statement, referring to
militias blamed for violence and which Maliki vows to disband.

But the reclusive Sistani's restraining hand on Shi'ites
has been weakened since the February attack as Shi'ite death
squads have become prime movers in what the Pentagon called the
"core conflict" -- no longer the insurgency but sectarian


Indian junior Foreign Minister E. Ahamed told Reuters the
14 pilgrims killed on Thursday were among 40 people who had
entered Iraq after touring holy sites in Jordan and Syria.

Ahamed said gunmen had stopped the convoy and separated the
men from the women in the party, which comprised 14 Indians and
26 Pakistanis. Police found the bodies of the men in
neighboring Kerbala province the following day, he said.

Assessing the situation in Iraq over the past three months,
a 63-page Pentagon report said on Friday that attacks rose by
24 percent, Iraqi casualties soared by 51 percent and the
violence was extending north beyond Baghdad. Partial Iraqi data
indicated a dip of about a quarter in civilian deaths in
August, however.

The United States has boosted its Iraq force to 140,000,
the most since January, with 15,000 combat troops in Baghdad
trying to halt the slide into all-out civil war.

Saturday's ceremony to hand over operational control of
Iraq's army from U.S. commander General George Casey to the
Iraqi Defense Ministry had been hailed by U.S. officials as a
big step toward Iraq taking responsibility for security.

"There was an error in planning between us and the Iraqi
defense minister," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel
Barry Johnson said. The ceremony would now take place on

(Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in Islamabad, Will
Dunham in Washington, N. Ananthanarayanan in New Delhi and
Alastair Macdonald, Ibon Villelabeitia, and Mussab Al-Khairalla
in Baghdad)