BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates urged Iraqi political leaders to step up reconciliation efforts on Thursday, saying they had to accept Washington could not make an open-ended commitment with troops and support.
Gates arrived in Baghdad on his first visit since a U.S.-backed security crackdown was launched in the capital in February to stop Iraq sliding into sectarian civil war and a day after insurgent bombs killed nearly 200 people in the city.
He said the United States wanted faster progress on legislation widely seen as vital to quelling sectarian bloodshed between Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority and Sunni Arabs, once-dominant under Saddam Hussein.
“The Iraqis have to know ... this isn’t an open-ended commitment,” Gates said, referring to Washington’s troop presence and level of support for the Iraqi government.
Gates, due to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said he would press Iraqi leaders to finalise an oil revenue sharing law and to agree on a plan to allow thousands of former members of Saddam’s Baath party to return to public life.
“It is very important that they bend every effort to getting this legislation done as quickly as possible,” Gates told reporters before leaving Tel Aviv for Baghdad.
Suspected Sunni al Qaeda militants carried out a string of bombings in mostly Shi’ite areas of Baghdad on Wednesday in the worst day of violence since the security crackdown began.
Tensions between Shi’ites and Sunnis remain high since the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 unleashed a wave of violence that has killed tens of thousands.
Washington, which has 146,000 troops in Iraq, has piled pressure on Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government to match military progress with political steps designed to allay grievances in the Sunni community, from which insurgents draw support.
Gates flew to the insurgent hotspot of Falluja west of Baghdad, where he and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, met U.S. troops.
U.S. President George W. Bush has ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq, mostly in Baghdad under the security plan and to give Iraqis breathing space to reach agreements.
In a speech on Thursday marking the 50th anniversary of his Islamist Dawa Party, Maliki described violence in Iraq as an “open battle” between government forces and al Qaeda militants and Saddam supporters.
Hours before Gates arrived, a suicide car bomber killed up to 10 people in Baghdad when he rammed his vehicle into a fuel truck, police said. Another police source put the toll at three.
Two British soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in the southern province of Maysan, a day after British forces handed over the area to Iraqi security control, British officials said.
The deaths brought to 144 the number of British soldiers killed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
War-weary Iraqis vented their anger at the Baghdad security plan, which has cut death squad killings but failed to stop car bombings and other large-scale attacks.
In the worst of Wednesday’s attacks, 140 people were killed in a truck bombing in the Sadriya neighbourhood -- the deadliest single insurgent attack in Baghdad since the 2003 invasion.
In Sadriya, angry residents criticised Maliki for failing to protect them. Smoke still billowed from the debris and sandals and glass littered the ground.
“The government is talking about the security plan but dozens of people are dying every day. No one is protecting us,” said Sabah Haider, 42, standing beside several burned out buses.
The U.S. military said Wednesday’s bombings appeared to be co-ordinated and the work of al Qaeda.
Maliki is under pressure at home to say when foreign forces will leave Iraq but maintains they will go only when Iraqi security forces are ready to replace them.
A U.S. general said Iranian intelligence forces were providing support to Sunni insurgents in Iraq, in addition to Shi’ites, to destabilise the country and tie down U.S. forces.
The comments by Major General Michael Barbero, deputy director for regional operations in the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, marked the latest escalation in U.S. accusations against Iran’s Shi’ite government.
“Detainees .... have indicated that Iranian intelligence operatives have given support to Sunni insurgents and then we’ve discovered some munitions in Baghdad neighbourhoods which are largely Sunni that were manufactured in Iran,” he said.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Yara Bayoumy, Paul Tait and Ross Colvin
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