BAGHDAD, Iraq – The death toll from a week of relentless insurgent attacks rose to nearly 300 Friday, intensifying pressure on Iraq’s still incomplete government to act quickly to stem the mounting violence that threatens to engulf the country.

In the latest challenges to the fledgling government’s authority, the renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to revive his armed rebellion and the bodies of 12 men, bound and shot in the head, were found in a garbage dump on the eastern edge of Baghdad.

Two more suicide bombings killed at least 25 people, one in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit that killed nine Iraqi police and the other in Suwayrah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, where a car bomber drove his vehicle into a crowded market, killing 16.

The past week of violence has left little doubt that the insurgency has wrested back the initiative lost to the democratic process in January, with a series of devastating attacks that have mostly targeted the Iraqi security forces considered crucial to the U.S. military’s exit strategy.

Yet as a sense of crisis in the country builds, the new government has been paralyzed by indecision and riven by factional differences over whom to appoint to key ministries.

Most significantly, the Defense Ministry remains vacant, more than a week after most members of the government were named. The new prime minister, Shiite Ibrahim al-Jaafari, has promised the powerful job will go to a Sunni, but no candidate acceptable to Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds has so far been named.

The appointment is seen as vital to the government’s chances of addressing the spiraling violence by persuading moderate Sunnis that their future lies with Iraq’s fledgling new democracy and not with armed rebellion.

As the violence rages and the government bickers, sectarian tensions have been building between the majority Shiites who dominate the government and the Sunnis marginalized from the political process by their refusal to participate in large numbers in the election.

Suwayrah, where one of Friday’s suicide attacks occurred, is the town where dozens of corpses, most of them believed to be of abducted Shiites, were pulled from the Tigris river last month. Many of the bodies were believed to have floated downriver from Madain, where Shiites say Sunni insurgents had abducted dozens of Shiites.

A spokesman for the hard-line Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars told Al-Jazeera television that the 12 men found in the garbage dump were Sunni tribesmen from Madain and said they had been detained by Iraqi police.

“There are militias inside the police who are trying to lead the Iraqi people into civil war,” Abdul Salam Qubeisi said.

There was no way of verifying the statement, but Sunnis repeatedly charge that the Iraqi security forces, which are dominated by Shiites, have been infiltrated by members of Shiite militia, in just one example of the sectarian suspicions that are hindering an accommodation between the two communities.

Though Shiites have repeatedly been targeted by the Sunni-dominated insurgency, Shiites have so far adhered to their religious leaders’ appeals to exercise restraint and wait for the first Shiite-controlled government in Iraq’s history to take the lead in defeating the insurgency.

But anger has been building among Shiites, too, at the seemingly endless negotiations over jobs that held up the formation of the new government for three months after the election in January.

Tensions flared in the Shiite town of Kufa, al-Sadr’s stronghold, when Iraqi security forces opened fire to quell an angry demonstration by an estimated 3,000 al-Sadr supporters who spilled out of the mosque after Friday prayers. Local hospital officials said five people were wounded.

The protesters had just listened to a message from al-Sadr read by his representative at the mosque, Aws al-Khafaji, in which al-Sadr warned that his followers would take up arms against the new government unless it stopped arresting and harassing his supporters.

“If we see tangible results, we will support them, otherwise I am ready to be martyred,” al-Sadr said, according to Khafaji. “We have laid down our weapons but we still exist, and our fingers are still on the trigger.”

Al-Sadr has kept a low profile since he led two revolts last year against U.S. forces from the sacred shrine in the holy city of Najaf. The rebellion was quashed last summer by the intervention of the respected Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who persuaded al-Sadr to leave the shrine, disarm his militia and join the political process. Although he did not directly participate in January’s elections, al-Sadr did not oppose them. Several of his followers won election to the National Assembly.

But al-Sadr indicated that he is growing frustrated with the bickering in Baghdad and sneered at Iraq’s political leaders for spending weeks bargaining over jobs in the government. “The oppressed Iraqi people are sick of politics to the point of indigestion,” his message said.

Al-Sadr’s threats raised the specter that the new government will find itself fighting a rebellion on two fronts, against Sunnis in the insurgency and against malcontents within its own Shiite constituency. Though al-Sadr’s following is small, his supporters are fiercely loyal and they dominate in a few key areas, notably the huge al-Sadr City slum neighborhood of Baghdad.

Al-Jaafari’s spokesman Laith Kubba said the government was accustomed to fiery speeches from al-Sadr and did not take the threat seriously. Nominees for all the vacant slots in al-Jaafari’s government have now been decided, including a defense minister, and they will be announced soon, he promised.


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