U.S. to Iraq: don't "blow this opportunity"

WASHINGTON | Thu Jan 26, 2012 3:15pm EST
(Reuters) - The United States has warned Iraq not to "blow this opportunity" to become a prosperous, unified nation, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday, saying it must start to act like a democracy and embrace compromise.

Iraq has suffered its worst political crisis in a year with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's move to arrest Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi last month, which has raised fears of renewed sectarian violence following the U.S. troop withdrawal.

Speaking in a question-and-answer session with State Department employees, Clinton said U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey has taken the lead in urging Iraqi politicians including Maliki, a Shi'ite, to settle their differences peacefully.

"He is constantly ... reaching out, meeting with, cajoling, pushing the players, starting with Prime Minister Maliki, not to blow this opportunity," she said. "This is an opportunity to have a unified Iraq and the only way to do that is by compromising."

Hashemi, a Sunni, was accused of running death squads. He has denied the charges and sought refuge in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, where he is unlikely to be arrested.

The current political crisis threatens to break up the country's fragile coalition government, raising fears it could slip back into the sectarian carnage that broke out following the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Clinton said despite the downfall of Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-dominated regime oppressed Iraq's Shi'ite majority, Iraqis' "minds are not yet fully open to the potential for what this new opportunity can mean to them."

She said the United States would do whatever it could to help "but at the end of the day, Iraq is now a democracy but they need to act like one and that requires compromise