BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s sectarian violence is worsening, but civil war is neither imminent nor inevitable, the visiting British defense secretary said Saturday.
“The most urgent need at the moment is the speedy formation of a government of national unity,” John Reid told reporters. Otherwise, he said, “malevolent” people will step into the vacuum.
As the Cabinet minister met with journalists in the fortress-like International Zone in the heart of Baghdad, police were reporting the latest sign of the wave of reprisal killings between Sunni and Shiite Muslims: the bodies of six men, some handcuffed, some blindfolded, found in a Shiite district of the capital.
Reid, on the second day of a three-day visit to Baghdad and to British troops in southern Iraq, also reiterated his position that the British military might begin handing over control of some areas to Iraqis sometime this year, depending on how quickly Iraqi security forces improve their capabilities. But, he said, “it might not happen this year. Even if it did, it will only be a start.”
The British government announced last Monday it would reduce its 8,000-member force in Iraq by 10 percent by May because of improving Iraqi capabilities.
The U.S.-British invasion of 2003 and the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime cleared the way for Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority to rise to power in Baghdad, supplanting the long-dominant Sunni minority. Shiite-Sunni violence has followed, exploding in recent weeks because of the bombing of a major Shiite shrine.
Reid was asked whether his troops would intervene in any all-out armed struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. “There is a greater degree of sectarian violence than there has been, perhaps an entrenchment there,” he replied. “I don’t think any of us would deny that that is a problem, but not a problem to the degree that we think civil war is imminent or inevitable.”
Iraq’s newly elected Parliament was seated on Thursday, and representatives of its Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish blocs have been meeting in an effort to overcome deep divisions and agree on the makeup of a new government. The minority factions want to block broad Shiite control of powerful ministries.
Reid, who was meeting with leading political figures here, said the new government must be “competent,” “nonsectarian,” and “inclusive,” and must be named soon. “I hope and I believe they appreciate the urgency of this,” he said of the Iraqis. With each passing week and month, he said, people “of malevolent intent” can step into the political vacuum.