Jaafari rejects US sectarian warning

Car bomb kills at least 21BAGHDAD (Reuters) — A car bomb killed at least 21 people in Baghdad on Tuesday hours after Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari angrily dismissed US warnings to shun sectarianism in the country’s new government.

The blast in the southern Dora district, the bloodiest in about six weeks, also wounded at least 27 people, one day after three bombings killed 19 people, breaking a relative lull in guerrilla violence.

Iraq was counting mass casualties again as US and British officials pressed its leaders to form a national unity government that can ease sectarian violence.

Speaking after talks with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who echoed the US call for a government of national unity in Iraq, the normally calm and diplomatic Jaafari, a Shiite Islamist, said Iraq knew its own best interests.

“When someone asks us whether we want a sectarian government the answer is ‘no we do not want a sectarian government’ — not because the US ambassador says so or issues a warning,” he told a news conference.

“We do not need anybody to remind us, thank you.” US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Monday the United States, which invaded in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, was investing billions of dollars in Iraq and did not want to see that money go to support sectarian politics.

His comments were echoed less bluntly on Tuesday by Straw, who said after a meeting with Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, that Iraq’s parliamentary elections in December showed that no single group can dominate Iraq’s new political landscape.

“This is a crucial moment today for the people of Iraq. We had the elections on December 15th. We’ve now had the final accredited results. What they show is that no party, no ethnic or religious grouping can dominate government in Iraq,” Straw said.

“This therefore gives further impetus to what Iraqis tell us they want, which is a government of national unity bringing together all the different elements of Iraqi society.” He met minority Sunni leaders and praised the new willingness of Sunni Arabs to join in the political process.

While Arab Sunni participation in the polls raised hopes that peaceful politics could defuse the Sunni insurgency, voting patterns suggested many cast their ballots on the basis of their sectarian or ethnic background, not political and economic programmes offered by candidates.

Rising tensions

Rising sectarian tension is increasingly evident on streets, where bodies are routinely dumped with bullet holes to the head.

Sunni accusations that Jaafari’s Shiite-led government has sanctioned death squads have tarnished the image of post-war Iraq, which US and British officials hoped would shine as an example of democracy in the region.

Straw reiterated that Britain was working to push democracy forward in Iraq, where the Sunni insurgency of bombings and shootings has killed thousands of security forces and civilians.

“The international community, particularly those of us who have played a part in liberating Iraq have an interest in… a prosperous, stable and democratic Iraq,” Straw said.

Hours before he spoke, Iraqi Displacement and Migration Minister Suhaila Abd Jaafar survived a roadside bomb attack on her convoy, police sources and an official in her office said.

Other violence included two policemen killed by a roadside bomb, an attack on a judge that killed another civilian and the discovery of the body of a bound man with shotgun wounds to the head and chest.

On Monday, three bomb attacks killed at least 19 people, including 12 victims of a suicide bomber who climbed aboard a bus in a Shiite district of Baghdad and blew himself up.

Damage control

Straw had arrived in Baghdad on Monday amid Iraqi anger over a video released earlier this month apparently showing British soldiers beating Iraqi youths in southern Iraq.

He said that incident had taken place two years ago and was under investigation, adding that there had been very few allegations of abuse overall since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“Now the evidence has become available there is a very thorough investigation under way by the military police. They have a very good record of being very tough,” he said.

British forces participated in the 2003 invasion to overthrow Saddam and are based in the southern city of Basra.

Provincial officials in Basra said last week they would continue their suspension of relations with British forces in the region after the video of the beatings appeared.

New footage of prisoners being abused at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison has also fuelled Iraqi anger.

The governor of Iraq’s mainly Shiite Kerbala province, Aqil Al Khazali, said on Tuesday he had suspended all cooperation with US forces because US security staff last week used police dogs to search government buildings.

Many Muslims consider it degrading to have dogs brought into their homes or offices.

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