The American ambassador to Iraq on Monday warned that the United States won't support a new Iraqi government that serves sectarian interests and told Iran that Washington won't tolerate its meddling, either.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad spoke during a news conference in Baghdad as another 24 people, including an American soldier, died in a string of bombings, underscoring the need for the country to establish a government capable of winning the trust of all communities and ending the violence.
Such a government is also essential to the U.S. strategy for handing over security to Iraqi soldiers and police so the 138,000 U.S. troops can go home. But talks among Iraqi parties that won Parliament seats in the Dec. 15 election have stalled over deep divisions among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
In his bluntest remarks yet about the need for a national unity government in Iraq, Khalilzad said that the United States is investing billions of dollars to rebuild the country, but added, "We are not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian."
He was addressing allegations that Shiite death squads operate within the Interior Ministry against Sunni Arabs, the backbone of the insurgency.
He singled out the Iraqi interior and defense ministries, saying that both must have leaders "who are nonsectarian, broadly accepted and who are not tied to militias."
Iran is playing "a negative role" in Iraq by providing weapons, training and other support to militias and insurgent groups that interfere in Iraqi politics, Khalilzad said.
"I say that Iran has a mixed policy toward Iraq," Khalilzad said. Part of that policy was a normal diplomatic relationship, he said, and the other was "to work with militias, to work with extremist groups, to provide training and weapons." He added that there was evidence that Iran's Shiite theocracy provided "indirect help" to Sunni Arab insurgent groups as well.
The Iranian aid was part of a "comprehensive strategy," he said, by a "player seeking regional pre-eminence."
Khalilzad suggested that Iran was focusing attention on Iraq in an attempt to distract the international community from Tehran's nuclear program.
It was unclear whether Khalilzad's remarks were a formal statement of American protest.
"I have said to Iraqis that we do not seek to impose our differences with Iran on them," he said. "But we do not want Iranian interference in Iraq."
Mistrust and bitterness run deep between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Much of it is rooted in oppression of Shiites and Kurds by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime and fanned by the current insurgency. Shiites and Kurds dominate the security services and most of the insurgents are Sunni Arabs.
Several Shiite parties are thought to control armed militias, some of which date back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s when many Iraqi Shiites fled to Shiite-dominated Iran. Kurds maintain the biggest armed force - the peshmerga - which they maintain is the legitimate security force of their autonomous government in the north.
Shiites demand that Sunni Arab parties work actively against the insurgency. Sunnis insist on drawing a difference between "legitimate resistance" to foreign occupation and terrorism that targets civilians.
Kurds zealously guard the self-rule they have enjoyed since 1991, and many of them want to expand their autonomous region to oil centers around Kirkuk, claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen.
There was no response from Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's government to Khalilzad's comments, but a prominent Shiite politician, Jalaladin al-Saghir, said the comments were "unacceptable" and constituted interference in the affairs of a sovereign state.
In the latest bloodshed, an American soldier was killed Monday by a roadside bomb near Karbala, a Shiite shrine city about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad.
A suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt on a bus Monday in Baghdad's Shiite district of Kazimiyah, killing 12 people and wounding 15, police said. Earlier, a bomb exploded next to tea stalls near Liberation Square in central Baghdad, killing at least four day laborers and wounding 14, police said.
In Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, a suicide attacker blew himself up in a restaurant packed with police eating breakfast, killing at least five people and wounding 21, officials said.
Two more civilians died when a car bomb exploded in Madain, southeast of Baghdad, police said. Eleven people were wounded.
Information from the Associated Press, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.