Iraq cancels peace talks after scores more die
The unremitting wave of sectarian violence that has greeted the Muslim holy month of Ramadan claimed scores more Iraqi lives at the weekend, as authorities in Baghdad announced the indefinite postponement of a conference of political leaders seen as crucial to quickly diminishing hopes for national reconciliation.
In a terse statement from the ministry for national dialogue, the government said the reconciliation conference, which had been scheduled for this Saturday in Baghdad, would be delayed until further notice for “emergency reasons”.
The cancellation is a further blow to the credibility of the national unity government of Nuri al-Maliki. The embattled prime minister has come under intense pressure from the US and Britain, as well as ordinary Iraqis, to halt the communal violence and the activities of armed militias and death squads.
In the weekend’s most vicious act of score-settling between the Shia and Sunni Arabs, at least 63 people were killed in the town of Balad, 80km north of Baghdad.
On Friday, police said the decapitated bodies of 17 Shia labourers had been found in an orchard near the town, which has a mixed Shia-Sunni population but lies in a majority Sunni area. In apparent retaliation, at least 46 Sunni Arab men were reportedly killed on Saturday and Sunday, as heavily armed, black-clad men described by one police source as being from the al-Mehdi militia of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr set up fake checkpoints in the town, stopping vehicles and hauling out anyone suspected of being a Sunni.
Officials at Balad’s main hospital said bullet-riddled bodies had been arriving throughout Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Some showed signs of mutilation and torture. “We are preparing ourselves to receive more bodies as long as the situation can get worse,” Qasim al-Qaisi, the hospital’s chief, told Reuters. “Sectarian killing is sweeping the area.”
In a disturbing parallel to attacks in Baghdad, the Balad killings appeared to be unaffected by extra Iraqi police and the imposition of a curfew. Police said on Sunday night that the town was “tense but calm”.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Saturday met prominent Iraqi Sunni and Shia clerics in Mecca and urged them to seek an end to the violence to allow the two sides to be reconciled.
Northern Iraq also witnessed a dramatic surge in attacks. At least 10 people were killed on Sunday by a coordinated wave of suicide bombs in the contested oil city of Kirkuk. In one blast a bomber blew up his car outside a teachers’ institute for women, killing four.
Last week Jan Egeland, the UN’s top humanitarian official, said the “blunt, brutal violence” was killing at least 100 Iraqis every day and displacing 9Â 000 every week. “Revenge killing seems to be totally out of control,” he said.
Maliki, a member of the ruling Shia alliance which is accused by some of fostering sectarian death squads, appeared to acknowledge the problem. Speaking on Sunday, he renewed a pledge to disband militias. “The state and militias cannot coexist and arms can only be in the hands of the government,” he said. “No one has the right to be above the law. Militias cannot be a substitute for the government and its security agencies.”
Meanwhile, Iraq’s central criminal court sentenced an al-Qaeda member to death and convicted 64 others on charges of belonging to armed groups and other crimes, the US command said on Sunday. It did not name the condemned man.
In the US, a bipartisan commission to formulate policy on Iraq, is reported to have ruled out the prospect of establishing a democracy, and is focusing instead on the more modest options of trying to achieve a modicum of stability or redeploying troops elsewhere in the region.
The commission, headed by a former Republican secretary of state, James Baker, will not officially publish its findings until after the November elections but, according to leaks to the New York Sun, it is considering two option papers—Stability First and Redeploy and Contain. Stability First says US troops should focus on stabilising Baghdad while US diplomats negotiate a settlement with insurgents. Redeploy and Contain calls for a phased withdrawal, retaining the ability to strike from a distance. - Guardian Unlimited Â