- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari yesterday angrily rejected U.S. warnings to the Shi’ite majority to embrace sectarian rivals in a new government.

Hours later, a car bomb exploded on a street packed with shoppers in a Shi’ite area of Baghdad, killing 22 persons and wounding 28, police said.

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Speaking after talks with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who echoed the U.S. ambassador’s call for a government of national unity, the normally calm and diplomatic Mr. al-Jaafari, a Shi’ite, said Iraq knew its own best interests.

“When someone asks us whether we want a sectarian government, the answer is ‘no we do not want a sectarian government’ — not because the U.S. ambassador says so or issues a warning,” he told reporters.

“We do not need anybody to remind us, thank you.”

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned Iraqis on Monday that they risk losing American support unless they establish a national unity government that takes the police and the army out of the hands of religious parties.

He 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.

Mr. Khalilzad’s comments were echoed yesterday by Mr. Straw, who said after a meeting with Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, that Iraq’s parliamentary election in December showed that no single group can monopolize power.

“No ethnic or religious grouping can dominate government,” Mr. Straw said. “This, therefore, gives further impetus to what Iraqis tell us they want, which is a government of national unity bringing together all the different elements of Iraqi society.”

He said all those he had met in Baghdad, including Mr. al-Jaafari, agreed that three key posts, in charge of the interior and defense ministries and the intelligence service, should go to “technocrats” free of sectarian and ethnic partisanship.

Mr. Straw met Sunni leaders and praised their new willingness to engage in politics. Asked whether he was concerned that majority Shi’ites could try to exclude Sunnis from a share of power, he noted internal divisions within the Shi’ite bloc.

“They know that no one party won the election,” Mr. Straw said. “They also know … that they themselves are divided and that it’s therefore in the strategic interest of each party, however big, to take part in a government of national unity.”

A coalition of Shi’ite Muslim religious parties won 130 of the 275 seats in the new parliament, and Shi’ite leaders insist their strong showing in the election gives them the right to control key ministries.

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.

Sunni Arabs have accused the Shi’ite-run Interior Ministry of kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians, a charge the ministry denies. Shi’ites and Kurds dominate the army and police, while most of the insurgents are Sunni Arabs.

The car bombing yesterday occurred shortly before 5 p.m. in a Shi’ite corner of Dora, a predominantly Sunni Arab district of Baghdad and one of the most dangerous parts of the city.

Police said the blast apparently was aimed at a police patrol, but missed its target, killing and maiming shoppers strolling along a street lined with appliance shops, and fruit and vegetable stalls.

It was the deadliest bombing in Baghdad since Jan. 19, when a suicide attacker blew himself up in a coffee shop, killing 23 persons and injuring 23.

The Dora bombing also was the second major attack in as many days against a Shi’ite target in the capital. Twelve persons died Monday when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt on a bus in the heavily Shi’ite district of Kazimiyah.

At least eight others were killed and more than 30 injured yesterday in bombings and shootings elsewhere in Baghdad and in attacks on beauty parlors and liquor stores — symbols of Western influence — in Baqouba northeast of the capital.

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