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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's government put Baghdad under curfew on Friday in a bid to stop sectarian violence among crowds from rival mosques on the Muslim day of prayer, setting a critical test for its authority and its U.S.-trained forces.
After two days of reprisal attacks on minority Sunni mosques following Wednesday's suspected al Qaeda bombing of a Shi'ite shrine, the United States and United Nations are backing efforts to avert a slide toward all-out civil war that could wreck U.S. hopes of withdrawing troops and inflame the entire Middle East.
Shi'ite Iran maintained its fiery rhetoric against the U.S. role in its neighbour; some suspect Tehran could try to divert U.S. pressure on it by fueling trouble in Iraq, where Washington hopes a friendly democracy would transform the oil-rich region.
Senior Iraqi officials said leading clerics, including the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, were making strenuous efforts to rein in Shi'ite militants -- but one said privately he feared even Sistani might be unable to control some gunmen, as evidenced by the dozens of attacks on Sunni mosques so far.
U.S. forces, mistrusted on both sides and whose prospects for departure Bush has staked on forging a stable, national unity government, have adopted a low profile in the capital.
The largely untested Iraqi police and army will be in the front line of Shi'ite-led government attempts to stop previously expected protest marches on Friday over the bloodless but symbolic bombing of Samarra's Golden Mosque and revenge attacks that officials reckon have killed more than 130 people.
Seven U.S. soldiers were killed in two attacks on Wednesday.
Residents reported fierce clashes in at least two areas in and around Baghdad overnight, both in areas where sectarian tensions are exacerbated by communities in close proximity.
Friday will be a test of the loyalties of Shi'ite militias nominally following the ruling Islamist parties, which have called for order, and of the loyalties of U.S.-trained troops and police, many of them drawn from those very militia groups.
Outspoken young Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the powerful, pro-Iranian SCIRI party joined calls for restraint. But their respective and rival militias, the Mehdi Army and Badr movement, have been out on the streets.
Competition for influence among these Shi'ite factions nominally united in the ruling Islamist Alliance may play a role in how events develop, analysts say.
"No one should move," one government source said of the curfew, which was announced on state television. "Police will detain anyone who goes out, even to go to prayers."
Extending an overnight shutdown, it will last until 4 p.m. (1300 GMT), after midday prayers, in Baghdad and surrounding provinces where Sunnis and Shi'ites live side by side.
The 130,000 heavily armed Americans stand ready in the background to keep order; some see them as the only real force capable of stemming a full-scale assault by majority Shi'ites on Sunni neighbourhoods around the capital after years of restraint in the face of Sunni rebel attacks that have killed thousands since U.S. forces overthrew Sunni leader Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"The issue hangs on the next few days. Either the gates of hell open into a civil war or the Shi'ites will take more power," said Baghdad political science professor Hazim al-Naimi.
"Only the U.S. military is preventing war in some areas."
A senior official in the Shi'ite Alliance said: "The question is how long will the Shi'ite public keep on heeding Sistani and staying calm ... Things could spin out of control and then nothing will stop Shi'ite anger if attacks continue."
Bush, keen for progress toward a troop withdrawal from Iraq before congressional elections in eight months, said: "I appreciate very much the leaders from all aspects of Iraqi society that have stood up and urged for there to be calm."
Among Thursday's dead were 47 people, apparently both Sunnis and Shi'ites, whom gunmen dragged from vehicles after a demonstration to show cross-sectarian solidarity near Baghdad.
Many of the 27 million Iraqis stayed at home amid a security clampdown on the first of three days of national mourning.
"I stayed home," Nasser Ahmed, a Sunni shopkeeper, said in Baghdad. "I was expecting mass killings in the streets."
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Faris al-Mehdawi, Lin Noueihed, Michael Georgy, Waleed Ibrahim and Lutfi Abu Oun)
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