BAGHDAD,(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 reducing the bloodshed.
Nuri al-Maliki will visit Washington to meet U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday and they are expected to discuss ways of improving security in Baghdad, which is gripped by mounting violence between Shi’ites and Arab Sunnis that has raised fears of all-out civil war in Iraq.
So far, Maliki’s 24-point reconciliation plan, long on promises but short on details, has failed to stem the rising violence.
“We support Maliki and his initiative and we hope this project succeeds and steps are expected to be taken quickly,” said President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, standing beside Maliki at a news conference during a break from the talks.
A senior U.S. official said in Washington on Friday that one option for improving security is to bring more U.S. and Iraqi forces into the capital.
The biggest Sunni party, the Iraqi Accordance Front, has not joined the reconciliation talks, and one Sunni parliamentarian said this was for “administrative” reasons. He also said leaders of the Sunni community, the backbone of the insurgency against the Shi’ite-led, U.S.-backed government, 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 the coalition led by Maliki remains committed in public to a U.S.-sponsored constitution preserving Iraq’s unity.
Iraqi and U.S. 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 Shi’ite militias of running death squads.
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 Shi’ite Alliance.
Bush is under pressure to show progress in Iraq, clearing the way for U.S. troop cuts by the end of the year, as his Republicans face elections in November with their control of the U.S. Congress at stake.
Five weeks after Bush visited Baghdad to bless the new Maliki government and rekindle hopes of better days ahead, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in suicide bombings and communal attacks.
The senior official in Washington would not say what security agreements Bush and Maliki might reach, but suggested there could be ways to bolster Iraqi forces whose month-old plan to limit violence in Baghdad has been overwhelmed.
U.S. 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 U.S. commander for the Middle East said on Friday that escalating sectarian violence in Baghdad had become an even greater worry 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,” Gen. John Abizaid, head of the United States Central Command, told the newspaper.