BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi leaders were holding their first formal talks in several days on Friday as Washington kept up pressure on them to form a national unity government that can avert civil war.
Twenty more violent deaths were reported in Baghdad alone in a combination of apparent sectarian violence aimed at civilians and attacks by insurgents on the security forces.
In one, gunmen shot dead four workers in a bakery and left a booby trap that killed a policeman when he opened a package.
A bomb killed five worshippers and wounded 17 as they left weekly prayers at a Sunni Muslim mosque at Khalis, a violent town north of the capital, police said.
U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been a driving force in pressing for a unity government, said: “I am the one who’s saying, ‘The country is bleeding, you need to move’.”
Speaking to the Washington Post, he also noted that despite a suicide car bombing on Thursday that killed at least 25 people at a police headquarters, more people died in death squad-style sectarian killings in recent weeks than in bombings.
The destruction of a Shi’ite shrine a month ago sparked a wave of reprisals that raised the prospect of pro-government Shi’ite militias launching Iraq into all-out civil war.
A senior government source told Reuters that the meeting scheduled to begin at the president’s offices at 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) would focus on finalising an agreement to set up a National Security Council. Negotiations on the make-up of the government itself would not resume until Saturday, the source said.
A spokesman for President Jalal Talabani said leaders of the main parliamentary parties elected in December would attend, although an aide to at least one of them, secular former prime minister Iyad Allawi, said he was unlikely to attend in person.
Allawi, with powerful backers in Washington, is widely tipped among senior political sources to play a leading role in the new Security Council, which some portray as a powerful parallel administration whose creation could sidestep deadlock among Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds on forming a unity government.
Some Shi’ite Islamists are putting up resistance to such a deal, sources said. Campaigning against Allawi’s cross-sectarian list in December, the Islamist Alliance compared the secular Shi’ite to Saddam Hussein, accusing him of dictatorial leanings.
U.S. envoy Khalilzad said 10 days ago that the parties would meet “continuously” to break deadlock on the line-up for a grand coalition. But Shi’ite Muslim and Kurdish holidays this week prompted an adjournment of several days.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added his voice to increasingly urgent calls from Washington for a government deal to be completed — leading senators visiting Baghdad this week lectured Iraqi politicians and spoke of American “impatience”.
“A good government … would be a good thing for the country and would reduce the level of violence,” Rumsfeld said. “They need to get about the task … Until it’s done, it’s not done.”
In a mark of U.S. concern, Khalilzad is preparing to hold talks on Iraq with officials from Iran, with which the United States has not had diplomatic relations since the Shi’ite Islamic revolution in 1979. There is as yet no clear sign of when and how such discussions may take place.
Iraqi Shi’ite politicians said the talks partly reflect divisions within the Alliance bloc, particularly over the nomination of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to a second term. He has Tehran’s backing but Washington is uncomfortable with him, Iraqi political sources say.
Khalilzad renewed accusations that Iran is backing Shi’ite violence in Iraq — some analysts say Tehran is using Iraq to deflect U.S. pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme.
“Our judgment is that training and supplying, direct or indirect, takes place, and that there is also provision of financial resources to people, to militias, and that there is presence of people associated with Revolutionary Guard and with MOIS (Iranian intelligence),” Khalilzad told the Washington Post. He said he was particularly concerned about the Mehdi Army militia of Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and said the political parties had to do more to curb their armed supporters. He said his own role in government negotiations had been reduced but that a gulf remained between Sunnis demanding a key role in decision-making and majority Shi’ites reluctant to give the once dominant minority an outright veto in cabinet.
Participants say debate has focused so far on the structure of decision-making in a government rather than on its personnel, although Sunnis and Kurds are sticking to their opposition to Jaafari while the Alliance is — publicly — behind him.
Three Christian peace activists rescued by British-led special forces in Baghdad on Thursday after four months held hostage were looking forward to returning home shortly.
Briton Norman Kember said: “I have had the opportunity to have a shave, a relax in the bath and good English breakfast.”
The 74-year-old retired professor and Canadians Harmeet Sooden and Jim Loney had been unaware that the fourth member of their team, American Tom Fox, had been killed two weeks ago.