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Iraq: President Calls For Unity As Death Toll Rises In Baghdad

By Charles Recknagel

PRAGUE, May 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has appealed to Iraq's feuding factions to unite and stop the sectarian killings that have swept the country in recent months. The violence has added hundreds of fatalities to the already high numbers of people killed in insurgent bombings or by criminals, pushing the death toll in Baghdad alone last month to more than 1,000.

Talabani said in a written statement on May 10 that "we feel shocked, sad, and angry when we receive almost daily reports of finding unidentified bodies and others who were killed on the basis of their identity."

He called on Iraq's feuding groups -- many of them believed to be militias tied to political parties -- to stop tit-for-tat reprisal killings of Shi'a and Sunnis. The killings have continued daily since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra on February 22.

Talabani said the reprisals, along with insurgent attacks and crime, killed at least 1,091 Iraqis in Baghdad alone last month. And he noted that that figure from the Baghdad morgue is likely a low estimate. Many other people disappear without a trace. 

RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau chief Nabil al-Haidari said the militant Shi'ite and Sunni groups are targeting not only each others' fighters but, more so, ordinary civilians. Often they seek to clear whole neighborhoods of members of the opposite community.

Al-Haidari described how two residents of one mixed neighborhood recently received death threats from opposing groups: "The day before yesterday, [one] neighbor, a Sunni from Tikrit, received a threat from armed people, four people, who came to him and said to him, 'You have to leave or we will kill you.' [On] the same day, [a] doctor, who is Shi'ite, received an envelope with a letter and a bullet, telling him to leave because he is Shi'ite, or he will be killed."

Political Parties Split Over Solution

So far, it has proved extremely difficult for Iraq's ruling parties to agree on a strategy for ending the violence.

"The Washington Post" reported today that senior Iraqi leaders are preparing to put the country's multiple paramilitary forces under a single command along with the police forces.

But that plan has been rejected by Sunni political groups. "If we [consolidate] the militias and put them in the official forces of the Interior and Defense ministries, this will convey the problem [of the militia's own violent agendas] to these ministries. So we cannot accept this idea," said Baha Aldin Abdul Qadir, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political bloc.

Sunni parties say that militia members now employed by the Interior Ministry but operating independently within it have carried out numerous abductions and killings of Sunnis.

Abdul Qadir said his party wants militia members instead to be integrated into ministries only in civil capacities or be enrolled in public-works programs. Alternatively, he said, they could be assigned roles as border guards far from urban areas.

Militias Growing Presence

Meanwhile, the paramilitary forces are becoming increasingly visible in Baghdad. Leaders of some political parties that have been appointed to head ministries have recruited members of their parties' armed wings to serve as guards for their ministries' facilities.

Al-Haidari said that today, there are so many uniformed and nonuniformed guards in Baghdad that no one knows who they all are.

"You have different kinds, and many kinds, of guard forces," Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau chief said. "There is the police, with official cars, and there are army members, with different colored uniforms, and at the same time there are some ministry guard forces, well-armed, and the strangest thing here are the many cars with civilian people, who do not wear uniforms, they are well-armed and they are shouting loudly and sometimes shooting [in the air] for the people to make way for them."

The exact number of ministry-affiliated guards across Iraq is unknown. "The Washington Post" quoted Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi today as saying there could be 150,000 such guards nationwide. They are assigned -- at least nominally -- to protecting various parts of Iraq's infrastructure, from oil pipelines to electrical plants.

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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