By EDITH M. LEDERER and JOHN DANISZEWSKI, Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Iraq's foreign minister said Saturday he doubts the escalating violence in the country will lead to "an all-out sectarian or civil war."
Hoshyar Zebari gave several reasons in an interview with The Associated Press: the Shiite, Sunni and other communities "know their limits;" the violence is limited mainly to Baghdad and its suburbs; and Sunni and Shiite religious leaders have edicts against killing each other's followers.
More than 4,500 people have been killed since April in a surge of violence by insurgents aimed at undermining confidence in the Shiite-led government. The violence began to surge after government security forces staged a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the north.
The Sunni minority has grown increasingly angry over what it sees as unfair treatment at the hands of the government and tensions have risen markedly since U.S. forces withdrew in 2011.
The growing unrest is marked by frequent coordinated car bombings and other attacks blamed mostly on al-Qaida's local branch targeting police, the military and often Shiite Muslim areas. The carnage is intensifying fears that Iraq is heading back toward the widespread Sunni-Shiite sectarian killing that peaked in 2006 and 2007.
Zebari said the recent increase in terrorist or sectarian violence is partly a consequence of the spillover from the conflict in neighboring Syria.
He blamed extreme Shiite militias and al-Qaida's local branch in Iraq, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, which is believed to be trying to build on the Sunni minority's discontent toward what they consider to be second-class treatment by Iraq's Shiite-led government.
"It is limited with these two groups, not nationwide as a community rising up," Zebari said.
At a meeting with Zebari earlier Saturday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "expressed concern at the political crisis and the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and called again on Iraqi leaders to engage in serious dialogue and speed up reconciliation."
The Iraqi minister said he believes Iraqis have also learned lessons from a decade of war.
Pointing to failed efforts by Shias and Sunnis in the past to finish each other off and carry out "ethnic cleansing," Zebari said: "We tried it before ... (but) it didn't succeed."
Now, he said, all communities know "how far they can push the envelope."
Zebari said the government is responsible for maintaining security but has asked the U.S. for counterterrorism and intelligence assistance as well as military equipment to help respond to the recent increase in violence and resurgence of al-Qaida.
"Because of the urgency, they (the U.S.) have responded positively to our need because of the common enemy, which is al-Qaida," Zebari said, noting that U.S. assistance has been especially useful along the Iraq-Syria border.
The Americans have also helped with aerial surveillance, he said, but a request for drones is still "being processed."
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