Saturday, March 25, 2006

U.S. envoy urges crackdown on Iraq militias

BAGHDAD, March 25 (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador urged Iraq's divided leaders to rein in militias on Saturday as political blocs failed again to break a deadlock on forming a unity government that they hope can avert civil war.

Zalmay Khalilzad, who is pressing hard for a government more than three months after elections, issued a tough warning about the militias, many of which have ties to powerful Shi'ite leaders and are entrenched in Iraqi security forces and police.

"More Iraqis are dying from the militia violence than from the terrorists," he told reporters during a visit to a Baghdad youth centre newly renovated with U.S. funds.

"The militias need to be under control."

Iraq's Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders held another round of talks aimed at resolving differences holding up formation of post-war Iraq's first full-term government.

Politicians told a news conference they were optimistic about forming a government.

Sunni politician Tareq al-Hashemi said talks focused on ways of building a solid political foundation for the new government.

The destruction of a Shi'ite shrine a month ago sparked a wave of reprisals that raised the prospect of pro-government Shi'ite militias pushing Iraq into civil war, nearly three years after insurgents from the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority began a campaign against the U.S.-backed authorities.

The crisis has increased pressure to form a cabinet that can avert an all-out sectarian conflict.

Police found 10 more bodies, apparent victims of sectarian violence, in different parts of Baghdad on Saturday. Many of them showed signs of torture, including some that were garrotted.

Gunmen killed a traffic policeman in central Baghdad then placed a bomb inside his booth which killed four civilians in a minibus and wounded four others, police said.

In Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, mortar bombs hit houses, killing four people and wounding 13, police said.

Khalilzad said the government would face the daunting task of easing a Sunni Arab insurgency while dealing with militias, which have flourished since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003.

Shi'ite militias have melded into Iraqi security forces and police and they are unlikely to want to give up their weapons at a time of raging sectarian violence.

Khalilzad renewed accusations on Friday that Iran is training, supplying and funding Shi'ite violence in Iraq.


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday the United States -- probably Khalilzad -- will talk to Iran about Washington's accusations of Iranian destabilisation of Iraq, in the first public acceptance of an Iranian offer to meet.

In Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he supported talks with the United States about Iraq but was suspicious of U.S. motives.

Washington is eager for Iraqi leaders to stabilise Iraq so that U.S. troops can go home. But a withdrawal is contingent upon the performance of Iraqi troops, who have watched Sunni insurgents kill thousands of their comrades.

Several U.S. senators visiting Iraq on Saturday said U.S. patience was running thin over Iraq, with some suggesting a continued military presence would only fuel the insurgency.

Senator John McCain, the head of the delegation, said he was guardedly optimistic that a new government would be formed "in weeks". But he suggested the conflict would drag on.

"We all acknowledge, particularly after visiting here, that this is a very long, tough enterprise and challenge that we are facing and I think the best way to treat it is to tell the American people exactly that," he told reporters.

Some Sunni Arabs have started forming organised forces as a counterweight to the likes of the Badr organisation and the Mehdi Army, both powerful Shi'ite militias, putting Iraq on the brink of full-blown civil war.

Washington is eager to see Iraqi Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni politicians reach a deal on a unity government that can deliver stability and enable U.S. troops to go home.

Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Friday he believed the parties were now willing to compromise and urged speed.

Parliamentary polls were held in December but a row over the prime minister and sectarian violence have delayed the formation of Iraq's first full-term government since Saddam was toppled.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has said he will not step down, despite pressure to do so, and is confident of the backing of his Shi'ite Alliance bloc, despite opposition from other parties. (Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Khartoum, Writing by Michael Georgy)


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