Iraq's precarious government was teetering yesterday as a powerful Shia militia leader threatened to withdraw support after sectarian killings reached a new peak and the country lurched closer to all-out civil war.
The prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was forced to choose between his US protectors and an essential pillar of his coalition, when Moqtada al-Sadr declared his intention to walk out, potentially bringing down the government, if Mr Maliki went ahead with a meeting with President George Bush in Jordan next week.
The funeral procession for victims of Thursday’s bombings passes the site of the blasts in Sadr City, Baghdad. (Photo Karim Kadim/AP)
Mr Maliki, a moderate Shia, faced the dilemma as the cycle of killings reached new levels of savagery. Yesterday, there were reports that at least 60 Sunnis had died in revenge killings and suicide attacks, including one episode in which Shia militiamen seized six Sunnis as they were leaving a mosque, doused them with petrol and set them alight, while soldiers reportedly stood by. In another attack, gunmen burned mosques and killed more than 30 Sunnis in Baghdad's Hurriya district before US forces intervened.
The violence added new urgency to a regional summit in Tehran this weekend on Iraq's fate. Iraq's neighbours, particularly Syria and Iran, have been accused of pulling strings in the Iraqi chaos, and Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is today due to play host to his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal Talabani.
The Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, was invited but reports from Damascus suggested he would not attend. Syria restored diplomatic relations with Iraq this week after a 24-year gap.
In a reflection of the importance Iran attaches to the summit, Mr Talabani is also expected to meet the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the ultimate say on foreign policy.
Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, predicted that Mr Talabani's visit would produce "important agreements". He described the violence and the US-British occupying forces as "two sides of the same coin" adding: "The two issues should be taken into consideration jointly and a comprehensive solution found."
Observers in Tehran said the government there hoped to use its summit as an overture to Washington. "The Iranian leadership are trying to use Mr Talabani, who has a special role inside Iraq and has never criticised Iran, as a mediator between Tehran and Washington," said Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst. "Mr Ahmadinejad is hopeful that he can attract America's attention through Iraq."
One unknown quantity at the summit will be how much sway the Ahmadinejad government has over Mr Sadr, who visited Tehran last January and met senior Iranian officials, including the country's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.
The broader question, growing more urgent each day, is whether anyone can now control the cycle of violence. Thursday was the most deadly day for Iraqi civilians, and morgue statistics showed that the past month has been the bloodiest since the 2003 invasion, according to the UN, with 3,709 civilians killed.
Since taking office, Mr Maliki has been under constant US pressure to disarm the Mahdi army and other Shia militias, while remaining beholden to them to stay in power. The Sadr party demanded yesterday that Mr Maliki "specify the nature of its relations with the occupation forces", demanded a timetable for a US withdrawal, and issued its ultimatum over the scheduled Bush-Maliki meeting in Jordan next Wednesday and Thursday.
"There is no reason to meet the criminal who is behind the terrorism," said Faleh Hassan Shansal, a Sadrist MP.
The White House appeared determined that the meeting should go ahead, after President Bush attends a Nato summit in Latvia on Tuesday. "The United States is committed to helping the Iraqis and President Bush and prime minister Maliki will meet next week to discuss the security situation in Iraq," said Scott Stanzel, a deputy White House spokesman.
Mr Sadr's people have six cabinet seats and 30 members in the 275-member parliament. Their vote in the intra-Shia haggling helped to select Mr Maliki as prime minister over other Shia rivals.
Mr Sadr used Friday prayers in the main mosque in Kufa, his headquarters in the Shia heartland south of Baghdad, to focus on Sunni leaders. He urged them to help end the slide into sectarian civil war.
Appealing directly to Harith al-Dari, the leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a radical Sunni organisation which has always denounced the US occupation, Mr Sadr told the congregation: "He has to release a fatwa prohibiting the killing of Shias so as to preserve Muslim blood and must prohibit membership of al-Qaida or any other organisation that has made Shias their enemies."
Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006