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US envoy to Iraq urges national unity to avert civil war

By Staff
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BAGHDAD, Feb 24 (Reuters) US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad urged Iraqi leaders today to form a government of national unity to avert a ''terrible'' civil war after sectarian violence killed some 200 around Baghdad alone.

''The events of the last few days reinforces the need for Iraq to have a government of national unity,'' Khalilzad told reporters during a teleconference.

''It is a moment of danger but also a moment of opportunity,'' Khalilzad said, adding that it could be ''used to bring the people together given the Iraqi leaders know and appreciate a civil war is a terrible kind of war.'' Revenge attacks on minority Sunni mosques and about 200 killed around Baghdad in just over 48 hours following Wednesday's suspected al Qaeda bombing of a Shi'ite shrine have raised fears of all-out civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis.

The bloodshed, the gravest crisis Iraq has faced since US-led forces invaded three years ago, is taking place as the country's fractious political and religious groups struggle to form a government more than two months after December polls.

Khalilzad, charged with implementing US policy of forging a stable Iraq that would allow the withdrawal of US troops, said all political parties and religious sects must come together.

Sunni political leaders pulled out of negotiations on forming a government after accusing the Shi'ite-led government of failing to protect Sunnis from reprisal violence.

Earlier this week, Khalilzad said Washington would not tolerate sectarianism or militias in the new government and its security forces.

Those remarks prompted a rare condemnation by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the powerful SCIRI Islamist party, that highlighted growing friction between US and Shi'ite leaders.

Khalilzad said today insurgents were seeking to incite a civil war by wrecking the Golden Mosque in Samarra, revered by Shi'ites, and that sectarian violence played into the hands of al Qaeda.

Iraq needed a government of national unity with ministers who are supported and trusted. A minister could not be seen as favouring a militia or tied to one group, he said.

Khalilzad said US forces were helping Iraqi authorities to bring calm, including assisting in the extension of a curfew in Baghdad and surrounding areas and in an investigation into those responsible for the bombing of the Golden Mosque.

Measures had also been taken to protect other religious sites.

''The current need is to promote security in mixed cities and US commanders and Iraqi leaders are meeting to establish measures to provide that security,'' Khalilzad said.

REUTERS SBJ PM2036

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