Iraq foreign minister appeals for stronger US, British help in resolving election dispute

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's foreign minister chided the U.S. and Britain for not taking an active role in resolving his country's bitter election dispute, and accused Washington of being more concerned with sending home U.S. soldiers.

In an interview published Saturday in a London-based Arabic language newspaper, Hoshyar Zebari also warned of a political vacuum in the country still struggling to seat a government almost two months after the March 7 election as American troops leave prepare to leave.

Zebari complained that the U.S. and Britain have stood on the sidelines of the current dispute, and appeared to urge them to be more aggressive in pushing Iraq's rival political blocs toward a compromise.

"Their (U.S. and Britain) role is absent in this election, and this has made matters more difficult," Zebari said in comments in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He noted that after Iraq's 2005 elections, both nations played a key role in cajoling Iraqi politicians into forming a government.

The foreign minister's stance appeared to put him at odds with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has slammed a proposal put forward by his chief rival that sought international intervention in setting up a new government. Al-Maliki said such a role would undermine Iraq's efforts to become fully independent.

The prime minister's Shiite coalition narrowly lost by two seats to former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's cross-sectarian Iraqiya, but neither garnered enough to rule alone, setting off protracted wrangling over the formation of the next government.

Zebari also suggested Washington should reconsider its August 31 deadline for withdrawing all U.S. military combat troops from Iraq if a new government is still not formed by midsummer.

"The American opinion so far is to let Iraqis solve their problems by themselves," Zebari said. "Their message to us is: 'Solve your problems quickly so that we can withdraw quickly.'"

In a second interview Saturday, with Iraq's al-Sharqiya TV, Zebari said neighboring counties were waiting for U.S. troops to leave so they could step in and fill Iraq's political vacuum.

"This is one of the most dangerous things Iraq would face," Zebari said. He did not name any specific countries, but many officials have voiced concern in recent weeks that Iran is seeking greater influence in Iraq.

Shortly after taking office last year, President Barack Obama set the August deadline for sending home all but 50,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. The White House can still push back that date, although U.S. officials have insisted so far that the timeline stands.

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said last year that he planned to hold troop levels steady until two months after the elections, primarily to give a new Iraqi government time to settle. But that timeframe expires next week, and Baghdad has made little headway on forming a new government.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad did not immediately respond Saturday to requests for comment. A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue openly, disputed Zebari's view. He said U.S. officials meet regularly with Iraq's rival political blocs and have been pushing for weeks for a compromise.

Compounding the political tension is widespread fear that al-Qaida and other militants will take advantage of the impasse to launch attacks. New data from Iraq's health, interior and defense ministries shows that more civilians killed in attacks in April than any other month so far in 2010.

The casualty figures, which were obtained and compiled by The Associated Press, show that 274 Iraqi civilians died in attacks last month, and another 731 were wounded. That's up from 216 killed and 419 wounded in March. However, far more Iraqi security forces were killed in March — 151 killed — compared to 54 in April.

Still, Iraq has enjoyed an overall decrease in violence as the insurgency has ebbed over the last two years. But the country continues to face almost daily violence. On Saturday, four people were killed — including three policemen — when gunmen attacked a jewelry store in north Baghdad.

Police and hospital officials say the culprits killed the owner and stole some jewelry. After capturing one of the gunmen, the policemen were killed by a bomb that was hidden in the car used in the heist.


Associated Press Writers Bushra Juhi and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.