Reuters: The United States and Iraq on Saturday dismissed fears a rash of bloody bombings could tip Iraq back into all-out sectarian war, while Iran said Washington was to blame for the attacks on Shi'ite Muslims.
By Arshad Mohammed and Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The United States and Iraq on Saturday dismissed fears a rash of bloody bombings could tip Iraq back into all-out sectarian war, while Iran said Washington was to blame for the attacks on Shi'ite Muslims.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting Baghdad after bomb blasts that killed 150 people in two days, rejected the charge from Tehran.
The attacks, concentrating on Shi'ite pilgrims in Baghdad and Diyala province, bore frightening echoes of incidents that led to the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07, and fueled fears of a resurgence in fighting just as violence had been dying down.
"The reaction from the Iraqi people and leaders was united in rejecting that violence and refusing to allow it to set Iraqi against Iraqi, which was obviously one of its intended goals," Clinton told a news conference.
The attacks targeted in large part Shi'ite Muslims, many of them pilgrims from Iran. In the past, such attacks have brought revenge killings against the once-dominant Sunni minority.
Iran's top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed Tehran's old foes, the United States and Israel.
"The main suspects in this crime and crimes similar to that are American security and military forces," he said in a statement read on state radio on Saturday.
He said U.S. forces, on the pretext of fighting terrorism, had occupied an Islamic country and "killed tens of thousands of people there and increased insecurity there day after day."
Clinton said she had not heard the comments.
"But I must say it is disappointing for anyone to make such a claim since it is clearly traced to the al Qaeda remnants and other violent groups," she said.
Khamenei's criticism could bode poorly for U.S. President Barack Obama's moves to thaw relations between Washington and Iran, at odds over Tehran's nuclear programme.
AIR OF DREAD
An air of dread has spread through Baghdad following the attacks, further eroding a measure of normality and optimism that had swept the city earlier this year.
While violence has dropped sharply, major political issues remain unresolved, such as settling control over the disputed city of Kirkuk and passing national oil legislation.
Rival political and armed groups jockey for influence, and reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi'ites remains elusive as U.S. combat troops prepare to withdraw from Iraqi cities in June. All U.S. troops are due to pull out by the end of 2011.
"We are doing our utmost … to ensure there is no vacuum when that happens and that security is viable … but this ultimately will be an Iraqi responsibility," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said.
The attacks do, however, raise doubts about the abilities of Iraqi forces, rebuilt from the ground up after being dissolved by U.S. officials following the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Analysts say violence could spike ahead of national elections due at the end of the year in which the increasingly assertive prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, will face off against fellow Shi'ites, Sunnis and increasingly alienated Kurds.
Baghdad's ties with Kurds in their northern region have deteriorated as Maliki seeks to strengthen central power.
Officials blame the latest attacks on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
Abdul-Karim al-Sammarai, a lawmaker from the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, said he did not fear reprisals against Sunnis from angry Shi'ites. "Iraq will never return to that spiral of violence again," he said.
Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, head of the parliamentary bloc of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a powerful Shi'ite party, said Shi'ites would not be drawn into broader conflict again.
"We will not react to what happened in the same manner. Our choice is to respond to such atrocities by continuing with the political process and supporting the security forces," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Michael Christie and Mark Trevelyan).