British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw yesterday urged key Iraqi leaders to set up an inclusive government after Washington sought to play down a surge in violence, saying political progress will help defuse sectarian tensions in Iraq.
Straw was meeting in Baghdad with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and a number of other leaders, including members of Sunni-based parties, a British embassy spokesman said.
The purpose of the talks "is to support the Iraqis as they work at forming a new inclusive government," the spokesman said.
London and Washington are looking to the formation of a stable government and an effective security force in Iraq in the wake of the Dec. 15 election to start withdrawing the 170,000 foreign troops in Iraq.
Straw's visit came as violence surged this week with some 200 killed, many in attacks on the country's Sunni majority that sparked renewed fears of a sectarian backlash.
Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahri, in a video broadcast on Friday by the Arabic television station al-Jazeera, called on US President George W. Bush to "admit that you have been defeated in Iraq."
Straw met regional Shiite leaders on Friday in the southern city of Basra where Britain's 8,000-strong military force is headquartered.
His talks in Baghdad came as the country awaits the final results of the election for the first permanent parliament since former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was ousted by US-led forces in April 2003.
Sunni Arab and other secular parties, alleging widescale fraud, have disputed early results issued by the electoral commission which gave Shiite-based religious parties and the Kurds a commanding majority of the vote.
Top Iraqi political leaders have already started to discuss the formation of a new cabinet, with Talabani, the US and Britain calling for a government of "national unity" in a bid to undermine Sunni-backed insurgents.
Meanwhile, US officials sought to downplay the surge in violence that on Thursday alone claimed the lives of more than 115 Iraqis and 11 US servicemen.
"These attacks are very c?learly designed to try to divide the Iraqi people. They are very clearly designed to try to derail the political development of Iraq," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.
"What is important ... is that [Iraqi leaders] try to move beyond identity politics and really engage in cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic activities in looking to build those coalitions and to do what is right for all Iraqis."
General George Casey, commander of the US-led forces in Iraq, described the rise in insurgent attacks this week as an "anomaly."
Shiites, who have borne the brunt of many of the bombings over the past few months, appeared to be losing patience after the most recent attack on Thursday outside one of their most important shrines in the southern city of Karbala.
Demonstrators on Friday took to the streets of Baghdad calling for tougher measures against insurgents and denouncing Sunni politicians for threatening to boycott the political process if their demands for new elections were not met.
The Supreme Council of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a Shiite religious formation and the leading party in the country, has also accused Sunni leaders of "political gamesmanship," saying bombers struck this week "after Iraqi parties that failed to meet their electoral goals made public statements and public threats speaking of civil war."