Gunmen have killed some 20 Iraqis at a large Shiite Muslim religious procession in Baghdad. Several hundred others were injured in the chaos that followed. Continuing violence between Sunni and Shiite militants comes despite a stepped up U.S. and Iraqi security presence in the capital. Iraqi officials are playing down concerns that their country is sliding into civil war.
The daily death toll from violence in Iraq now stands at more than 3,000 a month, or averaging more than 100 killings a day.
Appearing on CNN's Late Edition program, Iraqi Industry Minister Fawzi Hariri was asked if his country is enduing a de facto civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. Hariri said no - adding that while there are divisions in Iraq, they stem more from differences in political ideology than religion or ethnicity.
"The vast majority of the people of Iraq are determined to end up in a national unity country, and [with] a government that is for the whole of Iraqis," said Fawzi Hariri. "What we have is a struggle between two completely different ideologies: one that believes in the new dawn of Iraq, the new democracy, the new harmony amongst its people - and an ideology that is determined to stop the people of Iraq from achieving that goal."
Earlier this month, however, two senior U.S. generals told Congress that the warning signs of a possible civil war in Iraq are growing. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command in Iraq, said sectarian violence in Baghdad and elsewhere is as bad as he has ever seen it and could foreshadow civil war. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed that civil war is a distinct possibility - one that the U.S. military did not foresee a year ago.
Speaking on ABC's This Week program, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts went a step further.
"Iraq is in a civil war," said John Kerry. "Iraq is obviously fundamentally [suffering] sectarian violence. Our own generals said that, testifying before Congress just a few weeks ago. Why this [Bush] administration chooses to ignore the facts, ignore the truth continually, is beyond me."
But Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said the situation in Iraq, while dire, is not beyond hope. McCain spoke on NBC's Meet the Press program.
"I am not sure that it has turned into a civil war," said John McCain, "But it is a very difficult situation. We have got to win. We still do not have enough of the kind of troops we need over there. The question is: are we going to be able to bring the situation under control. I still believe we can."
Sunday's violence marked the second time in as many years that tragedy befell the annual Shiite pilgrimage to a shrine of a revered eighth century imam. Last year, nearly 1,000 people died in a stampede sparked by false rumors of a suicide bomber in the crowd.