Feb. 21, 2006. 01:00 AM

BAGHDAD—The U.S. ambassador bluntly warned Iraqi leaders yesterday that they risk losing American support unless they establish a national unity government with the police and the army out of the hands of religious parties.

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad delivered the warning as 24 people died in a string of bombings, underscoring the need for Iraq to establish a government capable of winning the trust of all communities and ending violence.

Talks among Iraqi parties that won parliament seats in the Dec. 15 election have stalled over deep divisions among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Mistrust and bitterness run deep. Much of it is rooted in oppression of Shiites and Kurds by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime and fanned by the current insurgency.

Shiites — who are believed to control armed militias — and Kurds now dominate the outgoing government and the security services; most of the insurgents are Sunni Arabs.

During a rare news conference, Khalilzad said division among the sectarian and ethnic communities was "the fundamental problem in Iraq," fuelling the insurgency and reprisal killings.

"To overcome this there is a need for a government of national unity," which "is the difference between what exists now and the next government," he said. Khalilzad said Iraq's next cabinet ministers, particularly those heading the interior and defence ministries, "have to be people who are nonsectarian, broadly acceptable and who are not tied to militias" run by political parties.

Otherwise, he warned "Iraq faces the risk of warlordism that Afghanistan went through for a period."

Khalilzad said the U.S. has spent billions to build up Iraq's police and army. "We are not going to invest the resources of the American people and build forces that are run by people who are sectarian" and tied to militias, he said.

There was no response from Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's government to Khalilzad's warning, but a prominent Shiite politician, Jalaladin al-Saghir, said the comments were "unacceptable" and constituted interference in the affairs of a sovereign state.

"It is the Americans who push toward sectarianism by their ever-changing points of view," al-Saghir said. "We feel uneasy about some of the U.S. agenda."

In the latest bloodshed, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt on a bus yesterday in Baghdad's Shiite district of Kazimiyah, killing 12 people and wounding 15, police said. Earlier, a bomb exploded next to tea stalls in central Baghdad, killing at least four day labourers and wounding 14.

An American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb near Karbala, a Shiite shrine city 80 kilometres southwest of Baghdad. And in Mosul, 360 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, a suicide attacker blew himself up in a restaurant packed with policemen eating breakfast, killing at least five people and wounding 21, including 10 policemen.

Two more civilians died when a car bomb exploded in Madain, southeast of Baghdad, police said. Eleven people, including three women, were wounded.