BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” The United States told Iraq’s leaders in stern language on Wednesday they must act swiftly to halt a surge in attacks by both Sunnis and Shiites that the United Nations said risks pitching the nation into civil war.
On a day of more gun attacks, bombings and the kidnap of 19 Sunni mosque officials, the US ambassador and US commander in Iraq implicitly blamed Shiite and Sunni groups respectively for two major attacks that killed some 120 people this week.
In a blunt statement, Zalmay Khalilzad and General George Casey condemned “terrorists” and “death squads” and said: “We call on Iraqi leaders to take responsibility and pursue reconciliation not just in words, but through deeds as well.” With the casualty count climbing to some 100 civilian deaths a day by a UN estimate, Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Maliki goes to Washington next week, where officials hope he can help them convince American voters that Iraq is turning a corner.
But Iraqi politicians and diplomats increasingly question the resolve of the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in the Cabinet to set aside partisan aims to stop a bloody break-up of the nation.
Maliki has called his two-month-old government’s national reconciliation plan a “last chance” for peace and his foreign minister said on Wednesday that their coalition had just months to prove itself. He warned of “full sectarian war” if it failed.
Also outspoken after the recent violence was UN envoy Ashraf Qazi, whose office endorsed figures this week suggesting some 6,000 Iraqi civilians died in May and June alone.
“We hope there will be no civil war in Iraq,” Qazi told reporters in Baghdad. “Although the reality right now is that there is a very high degree of violence.” “It threatens to erode the government’s authority.”
President George W. Bush’s administration is hoping for signs of political and economic progress in Iraq that might help the ruling Republicans in November’s congressional elections and raise hopes that it can start withdrawing American troops.
Though Maliki announced a first meeting of a reconciliation panel on Saturday that he said would feature former opponents of the US-sponsored political process, there is little substance as yet to a programme of compromises he outlined a month ago.
The US statement was notable in sharing out blame. In familiar language, it accused Sunni insurgents like Al Qaeda of fomenting civil war with a suicide car bomb attack that killed nearly 60 in the Shiite city of Kufa on Tuesday.
But it blamed “death squads”, a term officials have used for Shiite militiamen, for a gun and grenade attack on a market at Mahmoudiyah near Baghdad on Monday that killed a similar number.
US-led forces have been cracking down this month on Shiite warlords, in line with Maliki’s pledge to curb militias â€” a promise complicated by their links with his Shiite allies.
The kidnapping of 19 employees of the agency that oversees Sunni mosques underlined the depth of religious hatred.
Daylight attacks by squads of gunmen are among new features of the violence this month. Two markets were hit on Wednesday, one in a Shiite district of Baghdad, another in a village called Rasheed to the south. Gunmen killed seven people in all.
Ten days ago, suspected Shiite militia gunmen rampaged through a Sunni area in Baghdad, killing about 40 people.
At Mahmoudiya on Wednesday, police discovered the bodies of 18 men, including three policemen, bearing signs of torture.
“The security escalation we are seeing aims to challenge the new unity government,” Maliki said in televised remarks.
“They are trying to abort the national reconciliation plan.” Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd, told Reuters: “If this is allowed to go out of control … then you would have an all-out or a full sectarian war … We are not there yet.”
Fourteen employees of the Sunni Endowment, which runs the sect’s mosques in Iraq, were abducted when their minibus was stopped by gunmen in northern Baghdad on Tuesday and a further five were seized on the same stretch of road on Wednesday when gunmen in a car forced their vehicle to halt.