Iraq is on the brink of total disintegration and could drag its neighbors into a regional war, a leading think-tank said, after the Pentagon confirmed violence was at an all-time high.
The warning from the International Crisis Group came amid lawless chaos in Baghdad, where police were hunting for 16 kidnapped aid workers and a former minister who escaped from jail, allegedly with the help of US hired guns.
The ICG's report called on Washington to distance itself from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's beleaguered government, which has failed to tackle sectarian militias, and reach out to the United States' arch-foes Iran and Syria.
The permanent members of the UN Security Council and Iraq's six neighbours should engage with all the parties to Iraq's spiralling conflict, it urged, while nevertheless holding out little prospect of success.
"Implementation of the various measures mapped out in this report is one last opportunity. It is at best a feeble hope," the ICG paper said.
"But it is the only hope to spare Iraq from an all-out disintegration, with catastrophic and devastating repercussions for all," it warned.
The interior ministry's head of operations, Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf, told AFP that a high-level investigation had been launched into the capture of Red Crescent staff, the latest in a series of mass kidnaps. "It was repeated, and might be repeated again," he said, linking Sunday's raid on a Red Crescent office in Baghdad to another last Thursday in which several dozen shopkeepers were taken.
In both assaults, a large group of gunmen using security force uniforms, weapons and SUV trucks sealed off a central area of the capital and hauled off dozens of civilians, unchallenged by local law enforcement.
Iraqi Red Crescent secretary general Mazen Abdullah said that 10 more of the hostages had been released on Tuesday, but revised upwards the number known to have been taken, leaving 16 still unaccounted for.
Mass kidnappings have become the latest signature crime of the vicious turf war underway between Baghdad's criminal and sectarian factions, denting public confidence in the police and sowing paranoia.
Meanwhile, bomb and gun attacks killed three people in Baquba, north of Baghdad, and the bodies of eight more shooting victims were found, police said. An army officer was killed in Diwaniyah.
US troops shot dead one insurgent in Baghdad, and found and cleared at least eight roadside bombs, according to statements from the US military.
Khalaf also said police were investigating the case of a politician who escaped from a police station in the heavily fortified Green Zone where he was being held for a 2.5 billion dollar (1.8 billion euro) fraud.
Judge Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, head of Iraq's Public Integrity Commission, told AFP that former electricity minister Ayham al-Samarrai -- who has joint US and Iraqi citizenship -- had been sprung on Sunday and was on the run.
"As he has American citizenship, it had been agreed that guards from a private US security company would be allowed to protect him and to be posted around the police station in which he was being held," the judge said.
"They took advantage of the absence of many of the police from the station, who were called away to another mission, and entered the building to remove Samarrai," he added.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon's quarterly report into the US military mission in Iraq said violence has soared to the highest level on record, with an average of 959 attacks per week over the past four months, up 22 percent. Even this figure is likely to be a gross underestimate of the bloodshed because, as was noted in a highly critical bi-partisan review of US policy released earlier this month, the Defence Department's figures exclude most attacks.
"There is significant under-reporting of the violence in Iraq," said the report by the Iraq Study Group chaired by former Republican secretary of state James Baker.
The panel complained that most attacks that fail to hurt US troops are simply left out of the Pentagon's calculations, meaning that on any given day there could be 10 times more violent acts than noted by the military.
The Pentagon report was released just hours after former intelligence chief Robert Gates took up his post as the new US defence secretary and warned that the United States must battle on despite mounting casualties.
"Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come," the 63-year-old Washington insider said at the swearing-in ceremony.
The US military announced Tuesday that another marine had died in troubled western Iraq, bringing the number of US fatalities in the country since the 2003 invasion to 2,948 according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.
Copyright © AFP 2006