BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – President Jalal Talabani on Saturday underscored the need for a unity government in Iraq after a spasm of sectarian killing and said he had been assured U.S. forces would remain in the country as long as needed, “no matter what the period.”
Talabani spoke to reporters after a meeting with Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, who met with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Saturday.
Abizaid said he was “very, very pleased with the reaction of the Iraqi armed forces” during the violence that broke out after the Feb. 22 bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra and reprisal attacks against Sunni Muslims that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.
“We should understand that the terrorists are trying to create problems among the Iraqi people that can lead to difficulties between various groups,” he said after a separate meeting with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. “We should not fall into their trap. We are stronger than they are. We will ultimately prevail.”
The surge of violence, which killed at least 500 people since last week, has tangled negotiations to form a new government after December parliamentary elections and threatened American hopes of starting a troop pullout this summer.
Iraqi soldiers and police, backed in one neighborhood by a Shiite militia the United States wants disbanded, enforced a driving ban that brought relative peace to Baghdad streets Friday.
But as normal traffic resumed Saturday, a bomb exploded at a minibus terminal in a southeastern suburb, killing at least seven people and injuring 25, police said. Talabani said Abizaid assured him Saturday that U.S. forces “are ready to stay as long as we ask them, no matter what the period is.”
“He added that forming a strong national unity government made up of all blocs in parliament will help in stabilizing Iraq and bringing peace,” Talabani quoted Abizaid as saying.
However, Talabani said his Kurdish followers and their allies will fight a second term for al-Jaafari.
Sunni, Kurdish and some secular politicians have asked the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, to nominate another candidate. They accuse al-Jaafari of failing to rein in attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics in the aftermath of the bombing of the Shiite Askariya shrine.
“With all our respect to Dr. al-Jaafari, we asked them to chose a candidate who is unanimously agreed on by Iraqis,” Talabani said. “I want to be clear, it is not against Dr. al-Jaafari as a person. He has been my friend for 25 years. What we want is unanimity.”
Al-Jaafari’s supporters in the United Iraqi Alliance have vowed to resist moves to replace him. But other Shiite leaders are troubled by his close ties to radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose support was key to al-Jaafari’s nomination by a single vote in a Feb. caucus of Shiite lawmakers.
Hundreds demonstrated Saturday in Amarah and Najaf, in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland, in support of al-Jaafari’s bid for another term. Meanwhile, a string of explosions rocked Baghdad and areas in the volatile, religiously mixed region to the south. The bus terminal blast occurred at the height of the morning rush, setting three minibuses on fire and damaging nearby market stands, police Capt. Ali Mahdi said. The attack struck in a region where 19 people were killed when gunmen stormed an electricity substation and brick factory Thursday night.
Another bombing targeted an Interior Ministry special forces patrol in the Salman Pak area, 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Baghdad, killing two members of the patrol and wounding two others, police Maj. Falah al-Mohamadawi said.
A Shiite lawmaker, meanwhile, was seriously wounded when gunmen in two speeding cars fired on his vehicle near Basra, Iraq’s second city, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad. An aide for Qasim Attiyah al-Jbouri was killed and two bodyguards injured, police Capt. Mushtaq Kadhim said.
The attack against al-Jbouri, the former head of Basra’s provincial council who ran for parliament on the United Iraqi Alliance slate, was the second in 10 days. Gunmen on Feb. 24 kidnapped three of his children but freed them unharmed hours later.
Police also found at least four more handcuffed, shot-up bodies dumped in Baghdad and south of the capital. The violence shattered the relative calm brought by Fridays’ driving ban, which helped avert major attacks on the day Muslims congregate for the most important prayer service of the week.
Thousands of Shiites, frisked by al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militiamen in yellow button-down collar shirts and armed with Kalashnikov rifles and metal detector wands, knelt in prayer Friday at a huge outdoor service in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum.
The militia that kept order was the same force accused of going on a rampage of reprisal attacks against Sunni Muslim mosques and clerics after the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Police and aides to al-Sadr agreed Thursday night the anti-American cleric’s militiamen would help government security forces patrol the poor Shiite neighborhood after it was hit by a deadly bomb attack.
The government decision to legitimize patrols by the Mahdi Army, which had been going on anyway, appeared to have tacit U.S. military approval, even though American forces have fought protracted battles with the Shiite fighters for control of southern holy cities and the Sadr City Shiite stronghold.
Acceptance of the higher profile for the Mahdi Army, if only for a time, signaled the extreme importance U.S. authorities have put on quelling deadly sectarian violence after the Samarra bombing.
In a teleconference briefing with reporters in Washington on Friday, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, said he believed “the crisis has passed.” He added that the militias were “a long-term challenge, a long-term problem and there’s no silver-bullet.”
Casey said the military hoped some militia members would, over time, be integrated into the Iraqi government forces. “What we find is that, with the right leadership, even if someone has been a member of a militia, they generally respond favorably and work to support the unit’s efforts.” Casey said he still planned to issue an assessment this spring on the possibility of starting to withdraw U.S. forces.