Iraqi lawmakers again put off a divisive debate on federalism that was set for Tuesday after a fresh wave of violence killed 50 people and prompted a warning from the United Nations that Iraq was descending into civil war.
In some of his bluntest remarks on Iraq, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told an international conference on Monday: "If current patterns of alienation and violence persist much longer, there is a grave danger that the Iraqi state will break down, possibly in the midst of full-scale civil war."
His remarks came on a day which saw a bout of car bombs, shootings and sectarian killings across Iraq ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, when U.S. officials are expecting an increase of violence by al Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups. Ramadan starts next week.
On Tuesday, a car bomb near a factory to fill gas canisters in southern Baghdad killed two people and wounded 24 others.
Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish legislators agreed late on Monday to again put off the debate on federalism some Iraqis fear could unleash more bloodshed and break up the country.
Legislators from the Shi’ite majority, which swept to power in U.S.-backed polls after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein, wanted parliament to discuss a bill that defines the mechanics of federalism, one of Iraq’s most divisive issues.
Some Shi’ite leaders want to create a Shi’ite region in the oil-rich south, modeled on the Kurdish region in the north.
Minority Sunnis, dominant under Saddam and now the core of the rebellion, fear federalism will break up Iraq and cut them off from its oilfields in the north and south. They want constitutional amendments that guarantees revenue-sharing.
After marathon discussions, leaders agreed to set up parliamentary commissions to deal with both issues at once.
"We have agreed not to present the bill to parliament on Tuesday and allow more time for discussion," a senior Shi’ite source told Reuters at the end of a meeting. However, parliament will reconvene on Tuesday.
Bracing Baghdad for an expected increase in attacks ahead of Ramadan, U.S. and Iraqi officials are planning to shield the capital from car bombers by sealing off its entrances with checkpoints and trenches.
However, suicide bombers have staged deadly attacks in the past two days to the north and the west of the capital, where U.S. forces have diverted troops from the Sunni insurgent bastion of Anbar province to boost security in Baghdad.
The U.S. military said on Tuesday two U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad on Sunday and five others were wounded in a bomb blast in the town of Diwaniya late on Monday.
A U.S. tank was also damaged in Diwaniya, south of Baghdad, where U.S. commanders sent reinforcements three weeks ago after at least 20 Iraqi soldiers were killed in fierce street battles with Shi’ite militias.
The U.S. military handed over operational command of a second Iraqi army division to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has said he hopes he will run most of Iraq by the end of 2006.
Washington is gradually handing over security to Iraq’s fledgling forces under a plan to eventually pull out its troops.
Withdrawal plans have been complicated by a wave of sectarian violence since the February bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in that has killed thousands and forced many more to flee.
Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited