Saturday, November 25, 2006

Iraqi coalition on brink of collapse as country descends towards civil war

· Key ally tells PM to choose between him and Bush
· Iranian leaders to meet Talabani at Tehran talks

Jonathan Steele in Irbil, Robert Tait in Tehran and Julian Borger in Washington
Saturday November 25, 2006
The Guardian

"Iraq's precarious government was teetering yesterday as a powerful Shia militia leader threatened to withdraw support after sectarian killings reached a new peak and the country lurched closer to all-out civil war. The prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was forced to choose between his US protectors and an essential pillar of his coalition, when Moqtada al-Sadr declared his intention to walk out, potentially bringing down the government, if Mr Maliki went ahead with a meeting with President George Bush in Jordan next week.

Mr Maliki, a moderate Shia, faced the dilemma as the cycle of killings reached new levels of savagery. Yesterday, there were reports that at least 60 Sunnis had died in revenge killings and suicide attacks, including one episode in which Shia militiamen seized six Sunnis as they were leaving a mosque, doused them with petrol and set them alight, while soldiers reportedly stood by. In another attack, gunmen burned mosques and killed more than 30 Sunnis in Baghdad's Hurriya district before US forces intervened.

The violence added new urgency to a regional summit in Tehran this weekend on Iraq's fate. Iraq's neighbours, particularly Syria and Iran, have been accused of pulling strings in the Iraqi chaos, and Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is today due to play host to his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal Talabani.

The Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, was invited but reports from Damascus suggested he would not attend. Syria restored diplomatic relations with Iraq this week after a 24-year gap. In a reflection of the importance Iran attaches to the summit, Mr Talabani is also expected to meet the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the ultimate say on foreign policy.

Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, predicted that Mr Talabani's visit would produce "important agreements". He described the violence and the US-British occupying forces as "two sides of the same coin" adding: "The two issues should be taken into consideration jointly and a comprehensive solution found."

Observers in Tehran said the government there hoped to use its summit as an overture to Washington. "The Iranian leadership are trying to use Mr Talabani, who has a special role inside Iraq and has never criticised Iran, as a mediator between Tehran and Washington," said Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst. "Mr Ahmadinejad is hopeful that he can attract America's attention through Iraq."

Since taking office, Mr Maliki has been under constant US pressure to disarm the Mahdi army and other Shia militias, while remaining beholden to them to stay in power. The Sadr party demanded yesterday that Mr Maliki "specify the nature of its relations with the occupation forces", demanded a timetable for a US withdrawal, and issued its ultimatum over the scheduled Bush-Maliki meeting in Jordan next Wednesday and Thursday. "There is no reason to meet the criminal who is behind the terrorism," said Faleh Hassan Shansal, a Sadrist MP."

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