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UN Chief Warns of Civil War Danger in Iraq

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Monday that Iraq could be heading for full-scale civil war if current levels of violence continue. He spoke at a meeting on the Iraq situation at the United Nations that included a pledge by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to demobilize militias and rid government security forces of what he termed criminal elements.

The high-level Iraq meeting at U.N. headquarters brought together senior officials from around the world including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And it featured some of the bleakest rhetoric to date from United Nations chief Kofi Annan about prospects for the war-torn country.

Delivering brief public comments at a meeting that later continued behind closed doors, the secretary-general called it "absolutely heartbreaking" that despite progress in its political transition, Iraq's everyday life is dominated by the constant threat of sectarian violence and civil strife.

Speaking on a day that saw dozens more Iraqis killed in attacks, Mr. Annan said peace in Iraq can still be salvaged but that the country hangs dangerously close to a full civil war. "Iraq and its leaders are now at an important crossroads. If they can address the needs and common interests of all Iraqis, the promise of peace and prosperity is still within reach. But 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 a full-scale civil war," he said.

The U.N. chief said Iraq can still be, as he put it, brought back from the brink if the Baghdad government is able promote national reconciliation and draw the necessary support from the international community, including its immediate neighbors.

Speaking for Iraq, President Jalal Talibani insisted that despite the turmoil and death, the government's U.S.-supported Baghdad security plan is showing signs of success, amid what he said was a marked drop in reported incidents of violence in the last month.

Mr. Talibani said the government is committed to the principles of democratic civilian control of the security forces and "one-state, one-army," and intends to move against militias and what he conceded are rogue elements operating with the security forces. "Designing and implementing a plan for the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of militias: this is also a priority. This shall include retraining and creating employment opportunity for members of militias and other armed groups. The government also recognizes that the infiltration of the security ministries by criminal elements and members of terrorist groups represents a major challenge," he said.

Mr. Talabani, the senior Kurdish member of the Iraqi government, said the current administration's aim is a decentralized federal system within a united democratic Iraq.

Proclaiming Iraq's interest in good relations with its neighbors, the president said Iraq will not allow its territory to be used against the interest of any neighbor but neither would it allow any interference in its internal affairs.

The meeting here was aimed at advancing the International Compact for Iraq, an initiative launched in July aimed at helping the country achieve financial independence within five years.