Lawmakers press for solution

Iraqi rival leaders urged to meet

July 14, 2006|By BORZOU DARAGAHI | BORZOU DARAGAHI,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi lawmakers scrambled yesterday to maintain their relevancy, calling for a series of meetings between leaders of rival Shiite and Sunni Arab groups whose gunmen hold sway over the streets.

The elected officials want religious leaders of the main Sunni political groups and militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to settle their differences. Al-Sadr's militia has been blamed for a series of revenge attacks against Sunni civilians, often after Sunni insurgent bombings of Shiite religious sites.

Lawmakers inside the heavily protected Green Zone also held a closed session of parliament, where they grilled the defense and interior ministers, who said they were hamstrung by poor intelligence, inferior equipment and communications troubles when trying to halt the violence.

"By the time they coordinate with [U.S.] forces and start to react to an incident, the [assailants] have already vanished and moved to another place," Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, told reporters after the closed session.

Defense and interior officials told lawmakers that a monthlong security effort meant to take control of the capital was in its first phase, characterized by increased checkpoints. Ensuing phases will include neighborhood raids and other offensive operations, they said.

The officials vowed to re-evaluate the jobs of ranking security officials who are deemed sectarian and corrupt.

Sectarian and insurgent violence continued yesterday, with at least 28 more Iraqis across the country reported killed.

In what has become a near-daily occurrence, gunmen at an illegal checkpoint ordered a group of seven Shiite travelers out of their minibus on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, blindfolded them, walked them to a nearby riverbank and shot them through the back of the head at point-blank range.

One victim was a 12-year-old boy.

A hospital official reported the discovery of at least four more bodies in and around southern and western Baghdad. A suicide bombing outside a local government building northeast of Baghdad left six police officers dead, and gunmen assassinated a police colonel on the road between the capital and Baqouba.

Explosions killed seven Iraqis in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

Four Shiite police officers were shot to death a day earlier while traveling through the volatile Dora district in southern Baghdad, authorities reported yesterday.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the main Sunni political group, issued a statement saying that "well-known militias," a reference to al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, have taken over the last two Sunni mosques in the capital's mostly Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City and booted the clerics out of their nearby homes.

Al-Sadr's movement has been accused by U.S. and Iraqi officials of fueling the violence. But the defense minister told lawmakers that it was wrong to blame Iraq's problems on militias.

"We have to deal with [the security situation] politically more than militarily," said Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim al-Mifarji. "There are extremists on both sides."

Al-Sadr's father and uncle, both ayatollahs based in Najaf, were executed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. Hussein's security forces killed tens of thousands of Shiites in the south after a failed 1991 uprising against the government, resulting in a sectarian rift that has yet to heal.

Lawmakers called upon the religious and political leaders among the Sunnis and al-Sadr's followers to discuss their differences. "I think it will help soothe tensions," Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the speaker of Iraq's parliament, told reporters. "Without transparency we can't reconcile with each other."

Elsewhere in Iraq, two U.S. pilots walked away unharmed from the crash of a AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter south of the capital yesterday afternoon, the military said. The pilots were rescued within 10 minutes by a passing U.S. helicopter, the military said.

The military announced yesterday that an American sailor was killed in combat Wednesday in Anbar province. The sailor was the 11th U.S. fatality reported so far this month.

Also yesterday, Iraqi forces for the first time took over security responsibility for an entire province, a milestone in the U.S. plan to transfer control of the entire country by the end of next year.

British Maj. Gen. John Cooper signed the document turning over responsibility for Muthanna province, a relatively peaceful, sparsely populated Shiite province that had been under British and Australian control.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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