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As Iraq war enters 7th year, focus on politics

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BAGHDAD — Sunni and Shiite lawmakers warned Thursday that political and economic challenges could derail the country's progress toward stability as the Iraq war entered its seventh year.

After six years of war and tens of thousands of deaths, violence has declined sharply nationwide _ especially in Baghdad _ although the Sunni-led insurgency remains potent in northern Iraq. An Associated Press count recorded at least 288 Iraqi civilians and security forces killed in February 2009, a 63 percent reduction compared to 769 killed in the same month a year ago.

The Iraqi government held no official ceremony to mark the start of the war, which kicked off before dawn on March 20, 2003 _ March 19 in Washington _ with a U.S. missile and bomb attack in south Baghdad in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Saddam Hussein.

With violence at wartime lows, Sunni and Shiite politicians are focusing more on economic and political issues that the U.S. and many Iraqis fear could stoke the war after U.S. troops begin drawing down this year.

"The political process is full of tensions and contradictions and the situation in Iraqi will deteriorate if political progress isn't made," Sunni lawmaker Osama al-Nujaifi said. "There are still a lot of challenges ahead, including unemployment and the immigration millions of Iraqis abroad."

He cited the country's budget crisis after severe cuts had to be made following the steep drop in oil prices from a high of $150 per barrel last summer to just over $50 per barrel on Thursday.

"We live in a critical economic situation," he said. "There is a lot to be accomplished before we can express our optimism."

As a sign of improved security, the Tourism Ministry announced Thursday that an eight-member tourist group _ five Britons, two Americans and one Canadian _ are touring the country until Sunday.

The tour, organized by a British travel service, includes visits to the largely peaceful Kurdish north, Baghdad and the ancient ruins of Nineveh, Babylon and Ur, where the Bible says the Prophet Abraham was born.

Political and economic problems have grown even as U.S. plans to withdraw combat troops by September 2010, with all American soldiers gone by the end of the following year according to a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement. In a sign of political tension, the official in charge of the west Baghdad branch of the biggest Sunni Arab political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, was fatally injured late Wednesday by a bomb hidden on his car, police said.

The U.S. military is hoping to leave without the country disintegrating into chaos. At least 4,259 members of the U.S. military have died since the war began.

The decline in violence is largely attributed to a 2007 U.S. troop buildup, a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a militia cease-fire called by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

A key Sadrist aide on Thursday demanded a faster U.S. withdrawal.

"Iraq will never see stabilization unless all occupation forces are withdrawn. Any presence on any military base will exacerbate the problems," Sheik Salah al-Obeidi said.

"We haven't seen any change from the last anniversary until now," he added. "Other challenges are the ethical and financial corruption that Iraq will likely have to live with for years due to this occupation."

Al-Sadr, who led the feared Mahdi Army militia, ordered most of his followers to lay down their arms to form a new social welfare network, although he retained a small fighting force.

He renewed his call for members of the network known as Momahidoun _ or "those who pave the way" _ to denounce violence in a statement issued by his office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

"We praise and highly appreciate the work of those who are leading or participating in the big and effective Momahidoun project," al-Sadr said. "We hope they will continue to denounce violence and to raise science and culture as a weapon."

Al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, is trying to position himself as a political force ahead of national elections expected later this year. He also faces a challenge from breakaway Shiite militia groups that continue to stage attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa also said the withdrawal of U.S. forces will be a key factor in achieving national reconciliation in Iraq.

"Iraq's stability can only be achieved through two key things ... to stop all sectarianism polarization and the withdrawal of the U.S. forces," Moussa said after meeting Iraq's senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf. "These two things are linked."

Moussa's mostly Sunni 22-nation organization has begun to engage with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government after shunning it for years following the U.S.-led invasion.

His visit and push for reconciliation comes as many of his member nations are seeking to prevent Iran from gaining dominant influence in Iraq with the impending withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011.