Bloodshed piles pressure on Iraqi PM, Bush

Gunmen killed a much-loved Iraqi comedian on Monday, as attacks and kidnaps of senior politicians and dozens of ordinary people prompted the defence minister to declare that Iraq was now in a ”state of war”.

With pressure also growing on United States President George Bush for a change of tack and his allies urging him to approach Washington’s adversaries Syria and Iran to help stabilise Iraq, Syria’s foreign minister visited Baghdad for the first time since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

The past week has seen sectarian tensions come to a head inside Iraq’s national-unity government, which has yet to make headway on key issues six months after taking office on May 20 on a pledge to reconcile communities and avert civil war.

At a news conference uniting ministers who have been openly at odds over the fate of dozens of civil servants kidnapped by suspected Shi’ite militiamen, Defence Minister Abdel Qader Jassim said the security forces were hunting the kidnappers: ”We are in a state of war and in war all measures are permissible.”

The Shi’ite interior minister said it was not a sectarian attack on the Sunni-run Higher Education Ministry. Education officials have rejected government assertions that most hostages have been freed, saying dozens are still missing.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is preparing a Cabinet reshuffle and is under US pressure to disband militias loyal to his fellow Shi’ites, warned Iraq’s political leaders they had to abandon sectarian, partisan interests and pull together.

”We cannot be politicians by day and with the militias or terrorists … by night,” he told generals, whose own loyalties are in question.

Comic Waleed Hassan, whose satirical television show let Iraqis laugh at the sectarian violence and economic chaos, was killed by three bullets to the head on his way to work, the latest of dozens of broadcasters and journalists to be killed.

”We feel we’re all at risk,” a journalist at Hassan’s station said. ”We all think of quitting the station.”

Ministers attacked

Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamily said gunmen attacked his convoy and killed two guards near a Sunni rebel stronghold.

Zamily, who is a member of a Shi’ite party, was the second ministry deputy targeted in two days. His colleague Ammar al-Saffar, a member of Maliki’s Shi’ite Dawa party, was kidnapped from his home by gunmen in uniform. Another prominent Shi’ite politician was shot dead on Saturday.

”The convoy was blocked by several cars and we were fired on from the cars and round about,” Zamily told Reuters. ”Two of my guards were killed but we were able to fight our way out.”

A roadside bomb hit the convoy of another junior minister, Mohammed al-Oreibi, said an official in his secular party.

US military data showed less violence in Baghdad in the past four weeks than at any time since the government was formed but it spiked last week, Major General William Caldwell said.

Few Iraqis put much faith in their US-trained security forces, which Washington hopes can stand up to the militants but which US commanders concede are heavily infiltrated by them.

More than 100 deaths were reported around Iraq since Sunday morning. The bodies of 14 more people were found dumped south of Baghdad on Monday, an Interior Ministry source said, adding they were believed to be those of 14 people kidnapped from their homes in a Sunni neighbourhood on Sunday.

On a rare trip by a senior Arab official, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem stressed he was coming not to please Washington: ”I am nobody’s godfather and am not a mediator for the US … I’m not here to please the US.”

On Sunday, he called for a timetable for US withdrawal.

Iraqi officials say they are pressing Moualem to prevent al-Qaeda fighters crossing the border, cut off funding for Saddam’s diehard Ba’athist followers and stop protecting his former aides. — Reuters

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