Insurgents dragged five Shiite Muslim schoolteachers and their driver into a classroom, lined them against a wall and gunned them down Monday - slayings in Iraq's notorious Triangle of Death that reflect the enflamed sectarian divisions ahead of a crucial constitutional referendum.
The shooting was a rare attack on a school amid Iraq's relentless violence, and it was particularly stunning since the gunmen targeted teachers in a school where the children were mainly Sunnis. Elsewhere Monday, a suicide attack and roadside bombings killed 10 Iraqis and three Americans, bringing to at least 52 the number of people killed in the past two days.
The Iraqi and U.S. governments have warned that Sunni Arab insurgents are likely to increase their attacks ahead of the Oct. 15 national referendum.
Shiite leaders have called on their followers to refrain from revenge attacks against Sunnis, fearing a civil war could result, though Sunnis have accused Shiite militias of carrying out some killings of Sunni figures.
But in one of the first public calls for individual Shiites to take action, a prominent Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yaaqubi, issued a religious edict Monday allowing his followers to "kill terrorists before they kill."
"Self-restraint does not mean surrender. ... Protecting society from terrorists is a religious duty," al-Yaaqubi said. He also called on Shiites to "deepen dialogue with Sunnis" who are not "terrorists or Saddamists."
Earlier this month, al-Qaida's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, declared "all-out war" on Shiites and vowed to kill anyone participating in the referendum.
Leaders of Iraq's Sunni minority are calling on their followers to vote against the constitution and defeat a charter they believe will fracture the country and seal the domination of the Shiite majority.
American and Iraqi officials tried to rally Sunni support for the referendum by releasing 500 detainees from Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad to mark the coming Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a step called for by Sunni leaders.
There have been few attacks on schools in Iraq, which have little protection - though children are constant witnesses to, and sometimes victims of, the violence.
Classes had just ended at the Al-Jazeera Elementary School in the village of Muelha, 30 miles south of Baghdad, when the shooting took place at about 1:15 p.m.
Police Capt. Muthana Khaled said that as five Shiite teachers got into a minivan to head home, two cars pulled up carrying gunmen wearing police uniforms as a disguise.
The nine gunmen forced the teachers and their driver out of the van in front of students who were milling outside the school. The attackers dragged the six men into an empty classroom, lined them against a wall and shot them dead. The gunmen escaped.
Muelha is a Sunni-majority community in a region of villages with mixed Sunni-Shiite populations. The mix has made the area south of Baghdad a tinderbox of frequent shootings and bombings, mostly by Sunni insurgents targeting Shiite civilians. As a result, the region is sometimes called the Triangle of Death.
Farther south, gunmen on Monday assassinated a senior Shiite official from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in the town of Qurna, near Basra, said Haytham al-Hussein, an aide to the leader of the party, one of the main factions in the government, the AP reports.
Photo: the AP