Iraq Insurgent Urges Sectarian War

By Nelson Hernandez and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 3, 2006

BAGHDAD, June 2 -- Iraq's most prominent insurgent leader issued a call Friday for war between Shiites and Sunni Arabs, and the country's prime minister requested details of a U.S. investigation into the alleged killing of Iraqi civilians by Marines in the western village of Haditha.

The events threatened two fragile partnerships that U.S. officials have called crucial to Iraq's hopes of achieving stability. The first is the relationship between the country's Sunni Arab minority and Shiite Muslim majority. The second is the alliance of necessity between the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq and the infant Iraqi government that still needs protection to survive.

U.S. officials have indicated that, in the long run, cooperation between Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups is the most crucial bulwark against the outbreak of civil war. But while they have praised the involvement of Sunni Arab leaders in a Shiite-dominated political process, the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February unleashed a storm of sectarian killing that has yet to let up.

The audio tape issued Friday by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, made explicit what U.S. commanders have been saying for months: that Zarqawi, who has asserted responsibility for many of Iraq's bloodiest bombings, wants to drive the wedge between Sunnis and Shiites even further, goading them into open conflict.

The theme of his message was different from previous statements, including one in a video released in May, which have emphasized the need to fight the United States and its allies. The authenticity of the latest tape could not be confirmed, but in tone and delivery it was similar to past statements.

In a four-hour sermon, excerpts of which were played on Arab-language television, Zarqawi exhorted Sunnis to come to the defense of their sect against Shiite enemies he called "snakes" and "traitors."

"Sunnis, wake up, pay attention and prepare to confront the poisons of the Shiite snakes, who are afflicting you with all agonies since the invasion of Iraq until our day," Zarqawi said, according to a translation by the Associated Press. "Forget about those advocating the end of sectarianism and calling for national unity."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded by saying the tapes came from a "fanatic and deranged mentality."

"I don't think the Iraqis would listen to these miserable words," rejecting reconciliation, Maliki, a Shiite, said at a news conference. "Reconciliation is the hope of all Iraqis."

Political and sectarian divisions, however, have prevented Maliki from filling the three ministry posts in his 13-day-old government with responsibility for security. On Thursday, he said that it had been "almost impossible" to find candidates who had broad support among the major political groupings of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and secular parties but said parliament would meet Sunday to decide.

U.S. officials have said they hope that competent interior, defense and national security ministers will help slow the rampant violence. At least eight Iraqis died in attacks Friday, police said.

Maliki also faces a complex task in dealing with allegations that U.S. Marines killed 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in November after their convoy was struck by a roadside bomb, and two other incidents in which Americans allegedly attacked civilians. It is largely the U.S. presence in Iraq that has resulted in the formation and preservation of Maliki's government, the first since the fall of President Saddam Hussein.

Maliki has announced an independent Iraqi investigation into the Haditha incident and called on the United States to release the findings of its own investigation. Yet his responses to questions about Haditha on Friday appeared to be more restrained than they were the day before, when he criticized what he called "the practice" of abusing civilians.

"This case happened as a mistake and a violation," Maliki said at another news conference Friday morning. "There should be a correction for this fault and the violation. The presence of the forces is subjected to international laws. We correct the fault and keep the basic agreements."

"We will let the world know what the investigation reveals," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said at the same news conference.

Special correspondents Bassam Sebti, Naseer Nouri, K.I. Ibrahim and Salih Saif Aldin in Baghdad and Hasan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company