BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew into Baghdad on Wednesday for talks with Iraqi leaders amid worsening sectarian violence that has renewed fears of civil war and could complicate U.S. plans to withdraw troops.
Shortly after he arrived, a suicide bomber walked into a restaurant in eastern Baghdad and blew himself up, killing seven people and wounding 20, police said. Earlier gunmen seized 12 drivers from a bus station in Miqdadiya, north of Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told parliament Iraqi security forces had defeated a co-ordinated an attempt by gunmen to occupy Baghdad districts west of the Tigris in the past few days. Gunmen have fought in the streets, killing civilians and battling security forces in several districts.
Maliki said a national reconciliation plan he has promoted was Iraqis’ “last chance” to stem the violence.
“If it fails I don’t know what the destiny of Iraq will be,” he told the assembled Iraqi lawmakers, including representatives of the minority Sunni community who had staged a week-long boycott in protest at the kidnapping of a colleague.
U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said communal bloodshed between Sunnis and Shi’ites was now the biggest challenge to U.S. and Iraqi forces, overtaking the three-year-old Sunni insurgency as the main source of instability.
“A year ago, terrorism and the insurgency against the coalition and the Iraqi security forces were the principal sources of instability,” Khalilzad said on Tuesday. “Violent sectarianism is now the main challenge.
Scores of people have been killed in tit-for-tat-attacks, street fighting and bomb blasts since Friday alone. Police and the Interior Ministry blame much of the violence on increasingly powerful Shi’ite militias, although these deny any involvement.
Rumsfeld, on his 13th visit to Iraq as defense secretary, said he would discuss security in Baghdad and the size of Iraq’s security forces in meetings with U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials on Wednesday.
He said he did not plan to discuss a series of inquiries in which U.S. soldiers are suspected of killing Iraqi civilians. These will be handled by the U.S. military, Rumsfeld told journalists accompanying him.
The cases, including a quadruple murder and rape, have led Maliki to call for independent Iraqi inquiries and a review of foreign soldiers’ immunity from Iraqi courts.
Rumsfeld said strengthening the Iraqi government and Maliki’s national reconciliation plan would improve security as much as any military successes.
“We’re at a point now when the security situation depends as much on the reconciliation process and on the strengthening of ministries,” he said. “Success in those areas will determine the success from a security standpoint.”
Maliki has offered talks with some Sunni rebels and a limited amnesty under his 24-point plan in a bid to draw Sunnis, the seat of the insurgency, closer into the political process.
Rumsfeld’s trip also comes amid growing anti-war sentiment among the U.S. public in a congressional election year. A 129,000-strong American force is serving in Iraq more than three years into the war in which about 2,500 U.S. troops have died.
The defence secretary said it was too early to talk about adjusting U.S. troop levels. “We haven’t gotten to that point.”
While Washington has resisted setting a timetable for withdrawing troops, many of President George W. Bush’s Republican allies are anxious to show progress before the elections in November.
But that could be complicated by the surge in sectarian killings that have shown no let-up despite calls for Iraqis to unite. Khalilzad said General George Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq, was adjusting strategy to contain the violence.
The violence has also raised questions about the effectiveness of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, which Khalilzad said now numbered more than 265,000 troops. U.S. officials hope that as it “stands up”, U.S. troops can be pulled out.