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Fearful Iraqis close ranks

Iraq's prime minister, its president and most of the country's political elite met in an emergency session Saturday night in an effort to contain the sectarian crisis that has paralyzed the country.

The meeting, parts of which were broadcast live on national television from the house of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was a highly public display of good will, and it came amid a fresh wave of violence that left about 60 dead. Still, the sectarian reprisals by rioting mobs, which started Wednesday after the bombing in Samarra of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, seem to have subsided.

The intensive efforts at diplomacy Saturday came from as far as the United States: President Bush called leaders from Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political parties to urge them to return to talks over a new government, which had been derailed by violence and recrimination, according to Fred Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

The meeting in Baghdad, which lasted more than two hours and was joined by a flurry of joint statements and prayers by Iraqi political and religious leaders, came amid intense pressure from other American officials as well. At its conclusion, al-Jaafari said the participants had stated their desire to speed up the political process.

"Everyone believes that the prospect for a civil war has diminished significantly over the past several days," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, in remarks to reporters before attending the meeting. "All the mainstream leaders of Iraq believe that civil war must be avoided. It's very positive that they are all saying it."

Still, he said, "we're not completely out of danger yet."

Iraq's defense and interior ministers announced a partial extension of a curfew that has been in place since Thursday.

Traffic will still be banned in the capital through today, but cars can move as of 6 a.m. in three other provinces.

The killings Saturday included a bombing in a market in Karbala, a holy city for Shiites, which killed five and wounded 35, and the shooting of 12 members of a Shiite family in a farmhouse north of Baghdad.

Mourners from a funeral for an Iraqi journalist killed during the sectarian flare-up came under attack in western Baghdad, and two police officers were killed. Another officer was killed in a shooting near the house of Harith al-Dhari, a hard-line Sunni cleric.

Bodies continued to surface: In addition to the Shiite family, Iraqi authorities found 11 other unidentified bodies in and around Baghdad.

In another attack, local police officials in Kirkuk in northern Iraq said a bomb went off inside a Shiite mosque, called Imam Ridha, damaging its dome and one of its minarets.

In a live appearance on Iraqi television, the defense and interior ministers defended the government's actions for the first time since the violence began Wednesday, saying that reports of attacks against Sunni mosques had been exaggerated. A total of 22 mosques were attacked and just one was destroyed, they said - a count far less than the 47 attacks previously announced.

The Defense Ministry put the four-day death toll at 119, compared with the more than 200 reported by the Interior Ministry.

Even so, they said more Iraqi troops had been prepared for deployment, and they called on political leaders and clerics to tone down their rhetoric.

"We are ready to fill the streets with armored vehicles," Defense Minister Saidoon al-Dulaimy said.

At the same time, the American military said it had stepped up its public presence, joining in patrols and roadblocks. In a briefing for reporters Saturday, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for the American military command, said that during the past 24 hours, soldiers and the police had conducted 268 patrols in Baghdad and had set up 136 checkpoints.

Khalilzad said American patrols had increased from about 65 per day a few days ago to almost 300 on Saturday.

On the political front, there were signs of hope in addition to the meeting at al-Jaafari's house. The largest Sunni Arab political bloc announced that it was reconsidering its pullout from negotiations over the new government, after al-Jaafari announced that Sunni mosques would also be rebuilt.

In two joint news conferences, Sunni clerics and politicians joined Shiite counterparts to condemn the violence and project an image of agreement. The meeting at al-Jaafari's house, which lasted until well after 11 p.m., concluded with similar public displays of unity.

But as reports of violence continued, Sunni Arabs in the worst-hit mixed neighborhoods remained terrified, and many said they used the evening hours after the curfew to move their families to safer areas. In the normally calm neighborhood of Adhamiya, gunfights were heard until well after midnight.

In at least one case, on Friday night, government troops clashed with Sunni Arabs near the Qubaisi mosque in southwestern Baghdad, leaving 14 Iraqi police commandos dead, an Interior Ministry official said.

"You can imagine how everybody is scared," said Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and a member of the National Assembly. "Finally it's sinking in that something has to be done. You can't let this thing go completely unattended."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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