The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, claimed in London yesterday that Iraq was not sliding into a civil war, contradicting senior Iraqi officials in Baghdad who say a brutal sectarian war has already begun.
He admitted that 100 Iraqi civilians were being killed every day, though the real figure is probably much higher after a series of tit-for-tat massacres this month.
Mr Maliki stopped in London to see Tony Blair and will continue on to Washington for talks with George Bush. Mr Maliki told the BBC: "There is a sectarian issue, but the political leaders ... are working on putting an end to the sectarian issue. Civil war will not happen to Iraq." But even top Iraqi officials are already privately admitting that central Iraq and in all parts of the country where there is a mixed population of Shia and Sunni - or, in the north, Sunni and Kurd - civil war is now raging.
Asked how long Iraq would need foreign troops, Mr Maliki said he expected improvements in Iraq's ability to police itself by the end of the year. "It is definitely not decades, not even years," he said. "There are certain aspects of our local forces that need development. When that happens, foreign troops can start leaving." He said disarming militias was key, and the government had a plan to do it. "We have reached an agreement in the government that we will have to confront them [the militias] and deal with them."
This might presage an offensive against the Shia Mehdi Army militia, which US and British forces have been targeting in recent days. But much of the regular army and police, now numbering 264,000, are in effect controlled by their own community. US troops raided Mehdi Army facilities in Sadr City in Baghdad and killed at least 14 militants in Mussayab, south of Baghdad, arresting eight for suspected "death squad" activities after the clashes in Sadr City.
Meanwhile, defence lawyers boycotted yesterday's session of the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven others for the killing of 148 Shias in the town of Dujail in 1982. The US military said Saddam's health was not yet critical in the third week of his hunger strike. Saddam, 69, has been drinking coffee and liquid nourishment and receiving counselling to persuade him to eat. He is being fed through a feeding tube but it is not clear if this is forced feeding.
Adding to the chaos of the trial, which is nearing its end, Saddam's half-brother and former intelligence chief, Barzan al-Tikriti, refused his court-appointed attorney and demanded to be allowed to leave the chamber. "I am here against my will," he said.
Afterward, Barzan was allowed to make his own statement, in which he displayed contempt for the entire proceedings. Barzan told the judge that he did not take notes during his lawyer's summation "because I do not consider him as a representative of my case", and accused an unidentified court employee of extorting $7,500 (£4,055) from his sister-in-law. The chief judge, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, asked him to present evidence.
Barzan then began reading a poem about the courage of Baghdad in resisting foreign occupation, but was cut short by the judge, who said: "You insult Baghdad by saying Baghdad has fallen under the boot of American soldiers. It was the totalitarian and dictatorship regime that fell - not Baghdad." He then told the chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Moussawi, that he should open a criminal investigation against Barzan "on a charge of provoking the killing of Iraqis" by reading inflammatory verse.Reuse content