Ambassador talks with Shiite leader
Reports of violence have been overblown, the defense secretary said.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- The U.S. ambassador held talks with a top Shiite leader Tuesday as Iraqi factions wrangled over a new government. The prime minister declared he would not be "blackmailed" into stepping aside, and the Shiite majority balked at convening the parliament.
The inability to agree is threatening to crush American hopes of beginning a troop pullout this summer as violence rages on. Bombings, mortar blasts and gunfire killed 19 more people throughout the country Tuesday, and police also reported finding four more bullet-riddled bodies -- two of them with their eyes gouged out.
Holding a first session of parliament is a required step toward forming a new government. Fifteen days after the first meeting, parliament is supposed to elect a new president -- a job the incumbent, Jalal Talabani, wants to keep. In 15 more days, the parliament is to approve the nominated prime minister and 30 days later must vote on his Cabinet.
Underscoring U.S. concerns over the deteriorating political situation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad held a meeting with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the powerful Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the two dominant parties in the Shiite coalition that won the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
The two met at al-Hakim's Baghdad home to discuss "the current political situation concerning the formation of a new government and developments related to the alliance's candidate to head the Cabinet [al-Jaafari]," the SCIRI Web site reported with an accompanying photo of the session.
The U.S. Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for further information.
In an interview published Tuesday, Khalilzad said the 2003 U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein had opened a "Pandora's box" that could see the violence and turmoil now gripping Iraq turn into an all-out regional war if American troops are withdrawn too quickly.
"We have opened the Pandora's box and the question is, what is the way forward?" Khalilzad told the Los Angeles Times. "The way forward, in my view, is an effort to build bridges across [Iraq's] communities."
But narrowing differences among Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds has become an increasingly difficult task in the aftermath of the Feb. 22 bombing that destroyed the golden dome atop a Shiite shrine in the mainly Sunni city of Samarra.
The attack set off two weeks of sectarian revenge attacks, mainly targeting Sunni mosques, clerics and neighborhoods. Sunni politicians have accused the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, of launching many of the attacks with the blessing of the Shiite-controlled government security apparatus.
That and the simmering feud between Talabani, the Kurdish president, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite prime minister who owed his re-nomination to al-Sadr's backing, spurred the formation of a coalition determined to block al-Jaafari's second term.
If Kurds and Sunnis refuse Cabinet posts because of al-Jaafari, it could mark a failure of the U.S. goal of setting up a unity government with support of all ethnic and religious factions.
Speaking in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday accused Tehran of dispatching elements of its Revolutionary Guard to stir trouble inside Iraq.
At the same time, he rejected the idea that Iraq has slipped into civil war, asserting that media reports have overstated recent violence there.
Rumsfeld offered few details concerning his allegation of interference by Iran, which fought a nearly decade-long war with Saddam's Iraq in the 1980s and shares a largely unguarded border.
"They are currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq," he told a Pentagon news conference. "And it is something that they, I think, will look back on as having been an error in judgment."
He did not elaborate except to say the infiltrators were members of the Al Quds Division of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the network of soldiers and vigilantes whose mandate is to defeat threats to the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Al Quds Division is responsible for operations outside Iranian territory.
Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have previously complained of Iranian complicity in the movement of explosives and bomb-making material across the border into Iraq, but Rumsfeld had not mentioned Iranian forces before.
Rumsfeld also was asked about violence in Iraq since an attack last month on a revered Shiite mosque touched off a wave of reprisals between religious sects.
"I do not believe they are in a civil war today," Rumsfeld said. However, he added, "There has always been a potential for civil war."
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