10% cut in UK Iraq troops

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Iraqi President Jalal Talabani warned political parties on Monday it was vital to accelerate efforts to form a broad government to stop any slide into civil war after bombs killed 52 people in a Shiite Baghdad slum. The bodies of four men suspected of involvement in the blasts hung from pylons, residents of the Shiite Sadr City district said. Police said a sign left by the bodies, bearing gunshot and torture wounds, read: “These are the traitors.”

A government of national unity encompassing Kurds, Sunnis and the majority Shiites is widely seen as the best way to bring stability to the country, but three months after elections political leaders are deadlocked over who should lead it.

“The terrorists, infidels and Saddam Hussein’s followers are seeking to spread the spirit of separation and exploiting gaps left by any delay in the political process,” said Talabani.

“It is the duty of the political blocs to intensify their efforts to form a government and establish a broad front to achieve security and stability,” he said in a statement.

Politicians said they would step up negotiations but doubted a deal would be possible by the time the parliament elected in December meets for its first session on Thursday.

“The meetings will be hours and hours long, all leaderships will meet at one table in order to agree,” said Zafir Ani, a spokesman for the Accordance Front, the biggest Sunni bloc.

“We wish we could reach a deal by Thursday but I think it will be very difficult,” he told Reuters.

Further violence

In more violence, 15 people were killed and 55 wounded, mainly by roadside bombs. A provincial governor survived a car bomb attack on his convoy, while two bodyguards for a member of parliament were killed in an ambush on his motorcade in Baghdad.

Britain said it would trim its force in Iraq by 10 per cent and that the process of handing over security responsibility for swathes of territory to Iraqi forces could begin within weeks.

The United States has about 130,000 troops in Iraq.

After a lull in the sectarian violence that was unleashed by the bombing of a Shiite shrine on February 22, blasts ripped through Sadr City, bastion of a major Shiite militia, on Sunday. Officials said 52 were killed and more than 200 wounded.

Talabani, a Kurd, said the bombings were meant to “inflame sectarian strife and fan the fires of civil war.”

Officials, including the US ambassador, have warned that another attack like the Samarra Mosque bombing could spark all-out sectarian conflict in the bitterly divided country.

Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr said he would not order his militia to strike Sunni Al Qaeda militants after Sunday’s bombings in the stronghold of his Mehdi Army militia.

The Mehdi Army was accused of leading reprisals on Sunni mosques and clerics after Samarra that killed hundreds in a few days, an accusation Sadr has denied. Police said up to six car bombs ripped through two markets in Sadr City on Sunday.

Scores of Mehdi Army militiamen roamed the sprawling east Baghdad slum, home to two million people, on Monday, stopping cars and people to search for explosives and weapons.

‘Deal will take time’

Sunday’s blasts occurred as political leaders, shepherded by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, met again to discuss forming a unity government.

Sunnis, Kurds and secular leaders have been blocking accord with a demand that Ibrahim Jaafari, the Shiite who has led the interim government for the past year, be dropped as the Shiites’ choice of premier for the new four-year term.

But Sunni Arabs seeking the post of speaker and Kurds the post of president for Talabani need the support of the dominant Shiite Alliance bloc for their candidates, meaning parties will need to compromise to get what they want.

Iraq’s politicians said they were determined to reach a deal as soon as possible but that it would take time.

“We intend to have continued meetings for days and nights,” said Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni politician in the secular Iraqi list led by Shiite former prime minister Iyad Allawi.

British Ambassador William Patey issued a statement in Arabic in which he called on parties to “renew efforts aimed at speeding up the formation of a government of national unity.”

A former head of Saddam’s revolutionary court said on Monday he had issued death sentences for 148 Shiites in the 1980s but insisted they had confessed to an Iran-backed plot to kill the former Iraqi leader and that their trial was fair.

Awad Hamed Bandar is on trial along with Saddam and six others for the killing of 148 men from Dujail after an attempt on Saddam’s life in the town in 1982.

Former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan also denied involvement and accused US forces of torturing him in custody.Saddam is due to testify in his own defence on Wednesday.

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