Iraq MPs to meet amid violence

BAGHDAD (AFP) — Iraqi President Jalal Talabani announced Saturday that parliament will soon hold its first session since December elections in a bid to form a unity government and foil extremist efforts to trigger a civil war.His comments followed a meeting with the head of regional US Central Command, General John Abizaid, to discuss security after 10 days of sectarian bloodshed that have seen hundreds killed.

“A government of national unity can help improve security and stability in Iraq,” Talabani told a news conference.

He appealed to Sunni rebels not linked to Al Qaeda frontman Abu Mussab Zarqawi to lay down their arms and stop fighting Iraqi and coalition forces.

“We call on all the sons of Iraq not linked to Zarqawi to understand the danger posed by communal violence. It is in the interest of Sunni Arabs to put an end to their military operations,” Talabani said.

Last month’s bombing of a revered Shiite shrine — an attack attributed to Zarqawi — set off the worst round of violence between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis since the 2003 US-led invasion.

“It’s very clear that we cannot let the terrorists led by Zarqawi get in the middle of the peace that Iraq must have to develop,” Abizaid told reporters.

“We must move together against the terrorists before they break the general peace…. The government of national unity must form to bring the country together.”

Talabani said that the hardliners, including Zarqawi, “want to set sectarianism alight in the country and further divide Sunnis and Shiites.”

He acknowledged that the rising violence had helped slow the formation of national unity government more than two months after parliamentary elections.

The three-man presidency will summon MPs Sunday to an inaugural session sometime late next week to kickstart the process of forming the government, he said.

But the minority Sunnis and Kurds remain at odds with the majority Shiites over their determination to retain outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari in office.

The main Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, fell short of an absolute majority in parliament and needs the support of other parties.

In violence on the ground, at least seven people were killed and 19 wounded in a mortar attack near a Baghdad market.

Three people were wounded, including two police commandos, when a roadside bomb exploded near a patrol in the south Baghdad district of Dura. Two more people were hurt when another bomb hit a trailer truck in south Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh said the government was putting in place a new plan to disband militias, but stressed they did not pose a security threat.

The Sunni Arab minority has accused Shiite-based militias of orchestrating some of the recent violence against their community, triggered by the bombing of the Shiite shrine.

“I have sent a letter to the militias… asking them to implement the order to disband,” the minister told a news conference.

“There’s no reason to be afraid of the militias,” Solagh added.

A plan was passed to dissolve militias in June 2004, but most have remained in place.

Militias include the Mehdi Army of Shiite radical leader Moqtada Sadr, which led two uprisings against coalition troops in 2004, and the Badr Brigade, the formerly Iran-based military wing of a mainstream Shiite religious party — the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

US ground forces commander General George Casey said Friday that Shiite militias were responsible for reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques. But their takeover of Sunni mosques were fleeting and in most cases they yielded control when Iraqi security forces showed up, he said.

The crisis appeared to have passed for now, said Casey who nevertheless warned that another major attack on a religious site would have a significant impact.

“Anything can happen,” Casey said when asked about the threat of civil war in a video press conference from his headquarters in Iraq.

But he said “the chances of that are not good” as long as US forces are on the ground working with the Iraqi security forces, and as long as Iraqis are committed to forming a government of national unity.

Casey said he would take the sectarian bloodletting into consideration when he decides this spring whether to recommend further cuts in the 133,000-strong US deployment.

The US military had hoped to draw down the size of the US force to about 100,000 by the end of the year as the Iraqi security forces gain in strength and experience and take over responsibility for security operations.

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