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Negroponte, in Iraq, cautiously touts progress

/ Source: The Associated Press

Washington’s No. 2 diplomat said political progress must quickly follow the security gains from the influx of American troops in Iraq, warning Sunday that the country risks “falling back to the more violent patterns of the past.”

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has spent six days touring Iraq — including visits to former flashpoints Fallujah and Ramadi — and meeting with top officials. He said the issue of national reconciliation goes well beyond the Iraqi capital.

“It’s one thing to have brought the violence under some semblance of control, but it’s another to follow up” with reconciliation, reconstruction and stabilization, Negroponte told a news conference in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

Violence in Iraq has declined to levels not seen since January 2006, just before the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra set off sectarian reprisal killings that left thousands of Iraqis dead and brought the country to the brink of civil war.

But progress toward political reconciliation among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds has lagged behind improvements in security, raising concern that any momentum toward peace may be lost.

A political dispute that had taken on sectarian overtones in the past week eased Sunday, when one of the country’s most powerful Sunni Arab politicians — under guard at his home for days after one of his security guards was discovered with the keys to a car bomb near his office — was shifted to the Green Zone.

The hardline politician, Adnan al-Dulaimi, had accused the Shiite-dominated government of keeping him under virtual house arrest. But the situation was defused when the Sunni — accompanied by a leading Shiite lawmaker — moved to the Rasheed hotel in the Green Zone.

Politician's son arrested
“This move by the Iraqi government aims at protecting al-Dulaimi and making sure he is safe because all his bodyguards were arrested,” the chief government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, told The Associated Press.

The politician’s son and about 30 other people were arrested Friday after the discovery of the car bomb.

“I will stay at the Rasheed while parliament is in session, then I will return home,” al-Dulaimi told Sharqiyah television.

The furor over al-Dulaimi was the latest setback to national reconciliation efforts.

Lawmakers clashed over oil agreements signed by the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq with foreign companies without involving the central government. There have also been heated exchanges between opponents and supporters of a draft bill to reinstate into government jobs thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.

Those laws are seen as key to the reconciliation the U.S. is pressing for in Iraq, and Negroponte’s visit underscored their importance to President Bush’s administration.

“If progress is not made on these fronts, we risk falling back to the more violent patterns of the past,” he said.

Also credited with the decline in violence was the August order by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to his militia to suspend its activities, although splinter groups have disregarded his directive.

Al-Sadr reaffirmed his suspension order Sunday, saying in a statement on his Web site that he wanted to “thank my followers” for respecting his instructions “and I urge them to continue respecting the freeze.”

The cleric had threatened to reverse the order unless U.S. and Iraqi forces halt raids and arrests of his followers in the Shiite cities of Karbala and Diwaniyah. The Mahdi Army launched two major uprisings against U.S. and coalition forces in 2004.

Al-Sadr distancing himselfThe August order was issued after two days of bloody clashes in the Shiite holy city of Karbala that claimed at least 52 lives. Iraqi security officials blamed Mahdi militiamen for attacking mosque guards, some of whom are linked to the rival Badr Brigade militia.

The bloodshed triggered a backlash in the Shiite community about militias, once considered as protection against militant Sunnis but increasingly seen as thugs.

Al-Sadr’s freeze also appeared aimed at distancing himself from factions believed influenced by Iran, a charge the Iranians deny.

In his Web statement, al-Sadr also called on the government and parliament to end the U.S. “occupation” through political means. The statement signaled that al-Sadr, who controls 30 of the 275 seats in parliament, will probably oppose any future U.S.-Iraq security agreement that provides for a continued U.S. military presence.

American and Iraqi officials plan to begin talks on a new agreement to replace the current U.N.-mandated multinational forces mission, which the Iraqis don’t wanted extended beyond the middle of next year.

“We gained nothing from the long presence of the occupiers, except for division, killings, arrests and looting,” al-Sadr said.

Though violence in the capital has declined, roadside bombings, targeted killings and abductions remain daily occurrences. On Sunday, a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol in a Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Baghdad killed two officers, while a third officer in the neighborhood was shot to death on his way to work, police said.

Outside the capital, a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol near Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killed three soldiers and injured four.