BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's prime minister on Monday announced a new plan aimed at ending the deepening crisis between Shiite and Sunni parties in his government and uniting them behind the drive to stop sectarian killings that have bloodied the country for months.
The new plan emerged hours after gunmen abducted 14 computer shop employees in a bold, mid-day attack in downtown Baghdad, the second mass kidnapping in as many days.
The bodies of seven of the 24 captives kidnapped Sunday were found dumped in southern Baghdad. Sunni politicians blamed Shiite militias for both and demanded the government take action.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under increasing pressure to put a stop to the violence which has killed thousands since February. U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned this week that al-Maliki had to make progress within the next two months to avert a crisis.
But al-Maliki's administration has been plagued by growing mistrust between its Shiite and Sunni members, who each accuse the other of fueling the bloodshed.
The new four-point plan announced Monday after talks between the parties did not include new security measures to crack down. Instead, it aimed at preventing the political rift from deepening by giving all the parties a way to oversee security forces' actions against the violence.
Under the plan, local commissions will be formed in each district of Baghdad — made up of representatives of every party, religious and tribal leaders and security officials — to consult on security efforts. A central committee, also made up of all the parties, will coordinate with the armed forces, al-Maliki said.
A media committee will also be formed, and the parties will meet monthly to review the plan's progress.
"We have taken the decision to end sectarian hatred once and for all," al-Maliki told reporters. "We have vowed before Almighty God to stop the bloodshed."
Al-Maliki announced a 24-point reconciliation plan when he took office in May, which laid down ways to tackle violence on the ground — including an amnesty for militants who put down their weapons as well as security crackdowns. So far, the plan has done little to stem the daily killings.
Sunnis accuse the Shiite-led security forces of turning a blind eye to killing of Sunnis by Shiite militias — some of which are linked to parties in the government. Sunnis have accused al-Maliki, a Shiite, of being hesitant to crack down on the militias.
Shiites, meanwhile, accused Sunni parties of links to terrorists after a bodyguard of a top Sunni party leader, Adnan al-Dulaimi, was arrested by U.S. forces on Friday and accused of plotting al-Qaida bombings. Some Shiite politicians demanded a government reshuffle to push out Sunni parties.
The joint local committees aim to resolve such disputes by giving every party a chance to observe how security forces are acting on a neighborhood by neighborhood level. A Sunni representative, for example, could raise a complaint if he feels police are not pursuing a Shiite militia after an attack.
"We will spare no efforts to succeed in this great initiative which we agreed on today to stop the violence and killings in Baghdad and in all Iraq," al-Dulaimi said at the press conference with al-Maliki. The two of them signed an agreement with other Sunni and Shiite politicians on the plan.
In a possible boost to the effort to rein in the violence, a radical cleric who heads one of the most powerful Shiite militias, Muqtada al-Sadr, has issued orders to his followers to put aside their weapons temporarily, a Sadr spokesman told The Associated Press.
Al-Sadr issued the orders Friday, telling supporters that "the resistance (should) be political. ... He does not want to see a single drop of (Iraqi) blood shed," Amir al-Husseini said.
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has been blamed for many of the attacks on Sunnis since the bombing of a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad in February sparked the wave of sectarian violence. But U.S. commanders have suggested that since then some Shiite militants have split from al-Sadr, saying he is not radical enough and carrying out attacks on their own.
Violence has not slowed in the wake of al-Sadr's orders. A curfew slapped on Baghdad on Saturday in the wake of the arrest of al-Dulaimi's bodyguard brought a day of calm. But as soon as it was lifted, violence exploded again.
More than 50 bodies — most bound and many of them showing signs of torture — were found in Baghdad alone on Sunday, apparent victims of sectarian killings, police said.
Mid-day Monday, gunmen wearing military-style uniforms pulled up to a group of computer stores at the Techincal University in downtown Baghdad and pulled out 14 employees, forcing them into their SUVs and driving off, police said.
The attack came after gunmen stormed into a frozen meat factory in Baghdad late Sunday and forced 24 workers into a refrigerator truck, shooting two others who refused to get in.
Hours later, seven bodies were found in a Sunni district of the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora and were identified as workers from the factory. The fate of the other abducted workers was not known. In similar mass kidnappings in the past, the attackers have sorted out Shiites and Sunnis among their captives and killed those of the rival sect.
Lawmakers from the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni political group, said the kidnapped workers were all members of the minority sect and called on the government to take action.
"It is the time the government takes serious and urgent steps to disband these criminal organizations and to save the people from their harm," they said in a statement.
At least 20 other people were killed in attacks around the country, including a noontime bomb blast in Baghdad's downtown Al-Nasir Square that killed four and wounded 13, and mortar barrages against two Sunni neighborhoods that killed two people and wounded dozens.
The U.S command said three U.S. Marines died in Iraq's western Anbar province on Saturday — two in combat and the third in a vehicle accident. A British soldier was killed and another injured in a mortar attack on their headquarters in the southern city of Basra. One shell hit a nearby house, killing two children.
The political divisions were on display in parliament Monday when lawmakers renewed for another month the state of emergency that has been in effect since November 2004. The measure grants the government wide powers to impose curfews and carry out arrests without warrants.
But Sunni lawmakers accused the Shiite-led security forces of abusing the powers. "The security forces contain corrupted elements who misuse the law," Saleem Abdullah, of the Sunni Accordance Front, argued.