BAGHDAD - Mortar fire killed 15 people and shooting erupted around two Baghdad mosques on Sunday but pleas for unity and a third day of curfew in the city seemed to dampen sectarian violence that has pitched Iraq toward civil war.
Five killed in a minibus, teenagers gunned down playing soccer and two U.S. soldiers were among 30 deaths, a lower toll than other days since a suspected al Qaeda bomb at a Shi'ite shrine sparked reprisals on minority Sunnis and the biggest test of Iraq's survival as a unified state since the U.S. invasion.
Well over 200 people have been killed since Wednesday and the defence minister has warned of an "endless civil war".
After taking calls from President George W. Bush, who hopes stability can let him start bringing 136,000 U.S. troops home, Iraqi leaders met late on Saturday to issue a televised midnight appeal for calm and renew pledges to form a unity government.
Religious leaders, including the fiery young cleric and Shi'ite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, joined the calls; Sadr, a rising force in the ruling but fractious Shi'ite Alliance, told a rally in the second city of Basra his followers would hold joint prayer services at Sunni mosques damaged in violence.
A bomb later caused damage at a Shi'ite mosque in Basra and gunfire rattled around two Sunni mosques in Baghdad after dark.
"We have passed the danger period. The security situation is now 80 percent stable," said Ridha Jawad al-Taqi, a senior official in SCIRI, the biggest of the Shi'ite Islamist parties, which also runs a 20,000-strong armed wing, the Badr movement.
"The situation pushed the different groups to get together."
The curfew should end as planned at 6 a.m., officials said.
"The violence seems to be diminishing," Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley told CBS television.
"They've stared into the abyss a bit. I think they've all concluded that further violence ... is not in their interests."
Like Sadr, who denies the involvement of his Mehdi Army fighters in attacks on Sunnis, the SCIRI official blamed Shi'ite violence on a "natural backlash" to the symbolic, if bloodless, destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra by ordinary people after more than two years of attacks by Sunni al Qaeda.
While they disown attacks on Sunnis, the show of force by armed Shi'ites may have strengthened the hand of Shi'ite leaders in negotiating for powerful posts in the U.S.-sponsored talks with Sunni and Kurdish parties on forming a unity coalition.
Fifteen people died and 45 were wounded when scattered mortar rounds hit mostly religiously mixed areas of Baghdad, hospital staff and police said. Some also hit a Shi'ite area.
Frightened Shi'ite families, numbering several hundred people according to local community leaders, said they fled the violent and mostly Sunni suburb of Abu Ghraib in the west of the capital, fearing their neighbours were about to turn on them.
Five people died when a bomb destroyed a minibus as it left a bus station in Hilla, a Shi'ite town surrounded by Sunni villages south of Baghdad, the regional police spokesman said.
Gunmen in a car fired on teenage boys playing soccer in a mixed area of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, killing two and wounding five in what police described as a sectarian attack.
Two U.S. soldiers by a roadside bomb in western Baghdad.
Following Bush's calls on Saturday, Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari made a televised appeal, flanked by Sunni and Kurdish politicians, to Iraqis not to turn on each other.
"The Iraqi people have one enemy; it is terrorism and only terrorism. There are no Sunnis against Shi'ites," he said.
The meeting produced a commitment to forming a coalition of all the parties elected in December, though a Sunni leader said he wanted further concessions before ending a boycott of talks.
Bush urged Iraqis to "continue to work together to thwart the efforts of the perpetrators of the violence to sow discord".
More than 200,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi police and troops are on hand. But loyalty to the government over ethnic and sectarian ties would be tested in any conflict, leaving heavily armed U.S. forces holding the ring, resented on both sides but also widely acknowledged as vital to preventing a descent into deeper chaos.
The violence is a setback to Bush's hopes of pulling out many troops ahead of congressional elections in November.
Iraqi and U.S. officials blame the Samarra bomb on al Qaeda, saying it wants to wreck the project for democracy; al Qaeda accused Shi'ites of carrying it out as an excuse for reprisals.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, on opposite sides of ancient ethnic and religious divisions, have voiced concern about the violence and further crisis could sow turmoil throughout the Middle East.
Saddam Hussein, who justified oppression as necessary to hold Iraq together, is due back in court on Tuesday; his lawyer met him for seven hours on Sunday and said defence counsel may end a boycott of hearings they began in protest at a new judge.
An apparent deadline set by kidnappers of American reporter Jill Carroll passed without word; Iraqi police said they were still actively looking for her, two months after she was seized.