BAGHDAD, Iraq — Since taking office nearly seven months ago, the prime minister has talked about the need for Iraq’s rival ethnic and religious factions to rally around a plan to end violence.
But the country might never have looked further from national reconciliation than now, dampening hopes for a conference convening today that is aimed at bringing the factions together to pave the way for peace.
Amid preparations for the two-day conference in the Green Zone in Baghdad, the U.S. military reported yesterday that three more troops died in fighting this week. The news raises to 54 the number of Americans killed in Iraq in December — nearly half of them in Anbar province.
"Reconciliation is the last rescue boat for the Iraqis," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabagh said this week.
White House spokesman Tony Snow welcomed the reconciliation conference, saying yesterday that it provides a "forum for those who stand opposed to violence and murder" allows them "to stand up and make their voices heard."
"And the U.S., of course, stands with the prime minister and all leaders in Iraq who move toward those goals," he said.
However, Sunni-Shiite violence has raged for close to a year, and the sectarian slant of post-Saddam Hussein politics appears to be deepening in a climate defined by distrust.
That has left Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki virtually powerless to tackle other problems — the Sunni-led insurgency, power cuts, runaway inflation, unemployment and crime.
Government authority constantly is challenged and its security forces are infiltrated by Shiite militias linked to political parties in al-Maliki’s ruling coalition.
Al-Dabagh said the conference would include workshops to debate the main issues at the heart of the political divide between minority Sunni Arabs and Iraq’s current ruling class of Shiites and Kurds, who together make up about 80 percent of the population.
Muqtada al-Sadr, whose al-Mahdi Army militia is blamed for much of the sectarian violence, called for Sunni-Shiite unity yesterday and disavowed Shiites and Sunnis who kill members of the other sect.
In other news, the U.S. military is planning to move a brigade of troops into Kuwait in what could be the first step of a short-term surge of American forces into Iraq to stabilize the violence, a senior Defense Department official said yesterday.
The 2 nd Brigade of the 82 nd Airborne Division is expected in Kuwait shortly after the new year, the official said on condition of anonymity.
The 2 nd Brigade, made up of roughly 3,500 troops, is based at Fort Bragg, N.C., and would be deployed in Iraq early next year if needed, the official said. The move would be part of an effort to boost the number of U.S. troops in Iraq for a short time. The plan was first reported by CBS News.
Two Marines died Thursday in fighting in Anbar province, the military said. In Ninevah province to the northwest, a soldier assigned to the 4 th Brigade Combat Team, 1 st Cavalry Division, was killed Tuesday, the military said.
Meanwhile, al-Maliki issued his first public comment on a bipartisan U.S. report that said American policies in Iraq were failing, and he urged drastic changes.
"The report should have read the events more accurately and turned them into a good base for a solution. Instead, it contained contradictions in vision and recommendations," al-Maliki said in an interview on the pan-Arab satellite station Al-Arabiya.
He said the report contained "good elements" regarding the political process and Iraq’s unity, but it also included "insults and negative directions" in regard to the conflict. He did not elaborate.
In violence yesterday:
• Two suicide car bombs exploded at U.S. checkpoints in Ramadi, and American soldiers opened fire to foil one of the attacks, an Iraqi police lieutenant said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said four Iraqi civilians were killed.
• At least 34 people were killed or found dead yesterday, including 22 found across the capital, apparent victims of sectarian death squads.
• Gunmen killed a Shiite tribal sheik linked to British forces in a drive-by shooting in Basra.