BAGHDAD - Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari angrily dismissed on Tuesday U.S. warnings to shun sectarianism in the country's new government, saying Iraqis would not accept interference in their affairs.
Speaking after talks with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who echoed the U.S. call for a government of national unity in Iraq, the normally calm and diplomatic Jaafari said Iraq knew its own best interests.
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani during a joint news conference in Baghdad, February 21, 2006. REUTERS/Sabah Arar/Pool
"When someone asks us whether we want a sectarian government the answer is 'no we do not want a sectarian government' -- not because the U.S. ambassador says so or issues a warning," he told a news conference.
"...We do not need anybody to remind us, thank you."
U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said on Monday the United States, which led the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, was investing billions of dollars in Iraq and did not want to see that money go to support sectarian politics.
His comments were echoed less bluntly on Tuesday by Straw, who said after a meeting with President Jalal Talabani that Iraq's parliamentary elections in December showed that no single group can dominate Iraq's new political landscape.
"This is a crucial moment today for the people of Iraq. We had the elections on December 15th. We've now had the final accredited results. What they show is that no party, no ethnic or religious grouping can dominate government in Iraq," Straw said.
"This therefore gives further impetus to what Iraqis tell us they want, which is a government of national unity bringing together all the different elements of Iraqi society."
While Arab Sunni participation in the polls raised hopes that peaceful politics could defuse the Sunni insurgency, voting patterns suggested ballots were cast based on sect, not political and economic programs offered by candidates.
Rising sectarian tension is increasingly evident on streets, where bodies are often dumped with bullet holes to the head.
Sunni accusations that Jaafari's Shi'ite-led government has sanctioned death squads have tarnished the image of postwar Iraq, which was meant to shine as an example of democracy in a region of dictatorships.
Straw reiterated that Britain was working to push democracy forward in Iraq, where the Sunni insurgency of bombings and shootings has killed thousands of security forces and civilians.
"The international community, particularly those of us who have played a part in liberating Iraq have an interest in ... a prosperous, stable and democratic Iraq," Straw said.
Hours before he spoke, Iraqi Displacement and Migration Minister Suhaila Abd Jaafar survived a roadside bomb attack on her convoy, police sources and an official in her office said.
Other violence, small-scale by Iraqi standards, included two policemen killed by a roadside bomb, an attack on a judge that killed a civilian and the discovery of the body of a bound man with shotgun wounds to the head and chest.
On Monday, three bomb attacks killed at least 19 people, breaking a relative lull in guerrilla violence.
Straw had arrived in Baghdad on Monday amid Iraqi anger over a video released earlier this month apparently showing British soldiers beating Iraqi youths in southern Iraq.
He said that incident had taken place two years ago and was under investigation, adding that there had been very few allegations of abuse overall since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"Now the evidence has become available there is a very thorough investigation underway by the military police. They have a very good record of being very tough," he said.
British forces participated in the 2003 invasion to overthrow Saddam and are based in the southern city of Basra.
Provincial officials in Basra said last week they would continue their suspension of relations with British forces in the region after the video of the beatings appeared.
New footage of prisoners being abused at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison has also fueled Iraqi anger.
The governor of Iraq's Kerbala province, Aqil al-Khazali, said on Tuesday he had suspended all cooperation with U.S. forces because U.S. security staff last week used police dogs to search government buildings.
Many Muslims consider it degrading to have dogs brought into their homes or offices.
Additional reporting by Mussab al-Khairalla in Baghdad, Sami al-Jumaili in Kerbala
© 2006 Reuters Limited