- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

BAGHDAD — The U.S. ambassador delivered a blunt warning to Iraqi leaders yesterday that they risk losing American support unless they establish a national unity government with the police and the army out of the hands of religious parties.

Zalmay Khalilzad delivered the warning as another 24 persons, including an American soldier, died in a string of bombings, underscoring the need for the country to establish a government capable of winning the trust of all communities and ending the violence.

Such a government is also essential to the U.S. strategy for handing over security to Iraqi soldiers and police so that the 138,000 U.S. troops can go home. But talks among Iraqi parties that won parliament seats in the Dec. 15 election have stalled over deep divisions among Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

During a rare press conference, Mr. Khalilzad said division among the country’s sectarian and ethnic communities was “the fundamental problem in Iraq,” fueling the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency and the wave of reprisal killings.

“To overcome this, there is a need for a government of national unity,” which “is the difference between what exists now and the next government,” he said. The outgoing government is dominated by Shi’ites and Kurds.

Mr. Khalilzad said Iraq’s next Cabinet ministers, particularly those heading the Interior and Defense ministries, “have to be people who are nonsectarian, broadly acceptable and who are not tied to militias” controlled by political parties.

Otherwise, he warned, “Iraq faces the risk of warlordism that Afghanistan went through for a period.” Mr. Khalilzad was born in Afghanistan and served as U.S. envoy there.

To underscore his remarks, Mr. Khalilzad reminded the Iraqis that the United States has spent billions to build up Iraq’s police and army and said “we are not going to invest the resources of the American people and build forces that are run by people who are sectarian” and tied to the militias.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who arrived in Baghdad late yesterday, was expected to reinforce Mr. Khalilzad’s message during meetings with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other Iraqi leaders.

There was no response from Mr. al-Jaafari’s government to Mr. Khalilzad’s warning, but a prominent Shi’ite politician, Jalaladin al-Saghir, said the comments were “unacceptable” and constituted interference in the affairs of a sovereign state.

“We all want a national unity government, and the U.S. ambassador is no more eager than we are to reach such a government,” Mr. al-Saghir said. “It is the Americans who push toward sectarianism by their ever-changing points of view. We feel uneasy about some of the U.S. agenda.”

Mr. al-Saghir said the Americans had installed former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in the Interior and Defense ministries and “Shi’ites are upset about this.”

In the latest bloodshed, an American soldier was killed yesterday by a roadside bomb near Karbala, a Shi’ite shrine city about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad.

A suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt on a bus yesterday in Baghdad’s Shi’ite district of Kazimiyah, killing 12 persons and wounding 15, police said. Earlier, a bomb exploded next to tea stalls near Liberation Square in central Baghdad, killing at least four day laborers.

In Mosul in the north, an attacker blew himself up in a restaurant packed with police officers, killing at least five and wounding 21, including 10 police officers. Two more civilians died when a car bomb exploded in Madain, southeast of Baghdad.

A coalition of Shi’ite religious parties won 130 of the 275 seats in the new parliament. Although they have agreed, in principle, to a unity government, Shi’ite leaders insist that their strong showing in the election gives them the democratic right to control key levers of power.

A Kurdish alliance won 53 seats, and two Sunni Arab blocs together took 55 seats — a major increase over Sunni representation in the outgoing parliament. Iraqis have until mid-May to form a new government, but U.S. and Iraqi officials warn that the process could take longer.

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