Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (file photo) (AFP)
March 7, 2006 -- The U.S. ambassador to Iraq says the 2003 invasion of Iraq opened a "Pandora's box" of ethnic and sectarian strife that is raising the threat of civil war.
Zalmay Khalilzad made the remarks in an interview published today in the U.S. newspaper, "The Los Angeles Times."
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld downplayed the diplomat's comments, saying "natural historical differences" among Iraqis are posing a built-in risk of civil war.
Khalilzad said Iraq had pulled back from the brink after a deadly surge of sectarian violence after the February 22 bombing of a Shi'ite Muslim shrine in Samarra.
But he said Iraq will be "really vulnerable" if a similar incident occurs again, and the "potential is there" for sectarian violence to become full-blown civil war.
He said the United States must keep a strong presence in Iraq to avoid risks to Gulf energy supplies, and the threat that parts of Iraq would become a base for religious extremists.
Rumsfeld insisted that reports on the recent burst of violence in Iraq were exaggerated.