Sectarian break-up of Iraq is now inevitable, admit officials

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, meets Tony Blair in London today as violence in Iraq reaches a new crescendo and senior Iraqi officials say the break up of the country is inevitable.

A car bomb in a market in the Shia stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad yesterday killed 34 people and wounded a further 60 and was followed by a second bomb in the same area two hours later that left a further eight dead. Another car bomb outside a court house in Kirkuk killed a further 20 and injured 70 people.

"Iraq as a political project is finished," a senior government official was quoted as saying, adding: "The parties have moved to plan B." He said that the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties were now looking at ways to divide Iraq between them and to decide the future of Baghdad, where there is a mixed population. "There is serious talk of Baghdad being divided into [Shia] east and [Sunni] west," he said.

Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, told The Independent in an interview, before joining Mr Maliki to fly to London and then Washington, that in theory the government should be able to solve the crisis because Shia, Kurd and Sunni were elected members of it.

But he painted a picture of a deeply divided administration in which senior Sunni members praised anti-government insurgents as "the heroic resistance".

In the past two weeks, at a time when Lebanon has dominated the international news, the sectarian civil war in central Iraq has taken a decisive turn for the worse. There have been regular tit-for-tat massacres and the death toll for July is likely to far exceed the 3,149 civilians killed in June.

Mr Maliki, who is said to be increasingly isolated, has failed to prevent the violence. Other Iraqi leaders claim he lacks experience in dealing with security, is personally very isolated without a kitchen cabinet and is highly dependent on 30-40 Americans in unofficial advisory positions around him.

"The government is all in the Green Zone like the previous one and they have left the streets to the terrorists," said Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Iraqi politician. He said the situation would be made worse by the war in Lebanon because it would intensify the struggle between Iran and the US being staged in Iraq. The Iraqi crisis would now receive much reduced international attention.

The switch of American and British media attention to Lebanon and away from the rapidly deteriorating situation in Baghdad is much to the political benefit of Mr Blair and Mr Bush.

"Maliki's trip to Washington is all part of the US domestic agenda to put a good face on things for November," a European diplomat in Baghdad was quoted as saying.

Ever since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein a succession of Iraqi political leaders have been fêted in London and Washington where they claimed to have the insurgents on the run. Mr Maliki's meetings with Mr Blair today and Mr Bush tomorrow are likely to be lower key but will serve the same purpose before the US Congressional elections in November. US commanders are considering moving more of their troops - there are some 55,000 near the capital ­ into Baghdad to halt sectarian violence.

Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein has begun to receive fluids voluntarily after being taken to hospital following 17 days on a hunger strike to protest against biased court procedures and the murder of three defence lawyers.Among fellow Sunni his defiant court performances have rehabilitated his reputation, though he is still detested by Kurds and Shia.

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