Iraq holds reconciliation talks, but some pessimistic

news3.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) — Iraqi leaders met in a show of sectarian and ethnic solidarity on Saturday before a White House visit by the prime minister, but some were pessimistic about the chances of tackling rising sectarian bloodshed.

The biggest party from the Sunni Arab community, which forms the backbone of a raging insurgency against a Shiite-led, US-backed government, did not join the talks.

Prime Minister Nuri Maliki will visit Washington to meet President George W. Bush on Tuesday and they are expected to discuss ways of improving security in Baghdad, which is gripped by sectarian violence fuelling fears of civil war.

Maliki, a tough-talking Islamist, strongly urged Iraqis to embrace peaceful politics during a break from the talks in Baghdad’s heavily fortified government headquarters.

“Those who oppose the political process want to return to dictatorship,” he told a news conference, standing beside the president, a Kurd, and the Sunni speaker of parliament.

So far, Maliki’s 24-point reconciliation plan, long on promises but short on detail, has failed to stem the rising violence, which the United Nations says may be killing 100 people a day.

A senior US official said in Washington on Friday one option for improving security is to bring more US and Iraqi forces into the capital.

The largest Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, did not show up for Saturday’s meeting, and one Sunni parliamentarian said this was for “administrative” reasons.

He also said Sunni leaders have little hope that the talks will help ease divisions. “There have been previous meetings and they have led to nothing,” said the parliamentarian, who asked not to be named.

Iraq leaders have admitted they despair of being able to avert all-out civil war.

“Iraq as a political project is finished,” a top government official told Reuters on Friday, anonymously because Maliki’s coalition remains committed in public to a US-sponsored constitution preserving Iraq’s unity.

Iraqi and US officials now believe sectarian militias are killing more Iraqis and pose a greater security threat than the insurgency, though this is still a major destabilising force.

Sunnis accuse Shiite militias of running death squads and Iraqis fear they could be kidnapped or killed at any minute in the communal violence. Maliki has vowed to disband militias but it is a highly sensitive task because the armed groups are the military wings of political parties, including ones in Maliki’s Islamist Shiite Alliance.

The US military said its troops, backed by Iraqi troops and police, killed 15 fighters in a three-hour gunbattle near a Shiite mosque at Mussayab, south of Baghdad, and later found rocket-propelled grenades in the mosque. An Iraqi soldier was killed in the engagement.

Two US soldiers were also killed around Baghdad.

Bush is under pressure to show progress in Iraq, clearing the way for US troop cuts by the end of the year, as his Republicans face elections in November with their control of the US Congress at stake.

Five weeks after Bush visited Baghdad to bless the new Maliki government, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in suicide bombings and communal attacks.

US officials insist Iraq is not on the brink of civil war, saying Maliki is pushing ahead with reconciliation efforts and that most Iraqis do not want their country divided along sectarian lines.

The top US commander for  the  Middle  East said on Friday sectarian violence in Baghdad had become a bigger problem than the insurgency and that plans were being drawn up to move more troops to the capital, according to a report in Saturday’s New York Times.

“The country can deal with the insurgency better than it can with the sectarian violence, and it needs to move decisively against the sectarian violence now,” General John Abizaid, head of the United States Central Command, told the newspaper.

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