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Iraq's leaders announce plan to curb sectarian violence

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a tacit acknowledgement that Iraq's violence has reached crisis proportions, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and top Sunni and Shiite leaders on Monday announced an agreement to curb the country's rampant sectarian violence.

Few concrete details were revealed, however, and many observers fretted it was nothing more than political posturing by a government facing a maelstrom of criticism including charges that it is insensitive to the plight of Iraqis, who daily face threats from car bombings, mortar attacks, drive-by shootings, kidnappings and executions.

U.S. military officials in recent weeks have used background briefings to tell reporters they believe al-Maliki has only a short time to act before Iraq descends into factional chaos.

In the hours ahead of the announcement, at least 14 people were kidnapped in downtown Baghdad and seven bodies were found belonging to people taken hostage on Sunday. At least 50 bodies were found scattered around Baghdad on Sunday.

The four-point plan calls for various committees, including one from every district, to supervise the community's security forces. But it did not specifically spell out a plan for dismantling the armed militias that U.S. officials say are at the root of Iraq's sectarian violence.

Since the February bombing of a revered Shiite shrine, Shiite militias and Sunni insurgent groups have killed citizens of the rival sects.

The most prominent Shiite militia, rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, was allowed to act relatively unfettered, Sunnis charged, because Sadrists backed al-Maliki's nomination to the premier post.

Monday's agreement seemed as much intended to cool tensions between Shiite and Sunni factions within the government as at spelling out specific steps to be taken. In making the announcement, al-Maliki was surrounded by top Sunni and Shiite members of his government.

Al-Maliki repeated previous statements that militias are illegal in Iraq. "We all said many times that we do not need militias ... it can't be government and militias together building the country," Maliki said.

Omar Abdul Satar, a Sunni politician, said the announcement was preceded by two days of negotiations.

Yet the four-point plan was vague and provided no details of what steps would be taken to curb violence. Al-Maliki said more announcements would be made in the future.

The plan calls for the formation of three committees. At the neighborhood level, a committee composed of local political and tribal leaders would meet with Iraqi military officials on violence. Another committee would be responsible for overseeing security throughout Baghdad and coordinating the work of the neighborhood committees. A third committee would monitor news media.

The fourth aspect of the plan is a monthly meeting to review progress.

Abdul Kareem Ali, a Sunni member of parliament who participated in the meetings that led to the agreement said in a telephone interview that the patrons in parliament of the two largest militias had backed the plan.

"The Sadrists have agreed and Badr Organization leaders have also agreed that the government will have the weapons exclusively," he said, adding that the details could be completed Tuesday.

Several political leaders said militias were becoming stronger than the government and had to be curbed. And they acknowledged this could be the last time they can stop the nation's plunge toward chaos.

Their remarks echoed recent interviews with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, in which he said the unity government may only have weeks to take strong action.

The agreement was announced relatively late Monday night. With little time to react, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad responded cautiously.

"This is a significant step in the right direction and shows that the Iraqi leaders want their country to succeed and are responding to the wishes (of) their people for security," the embassy said in a statement. "Now begins the hard work of implementing the plan."


(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.