Shi’ite, Kurd leaders start to split posts

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BAGHDAD — The Shi’ite religious bloc leading Iraq’s parliamentary elections held talks yesterday with Kurdish leaders about who should get the top 12 government jobs, as thousands of Sunni Arabs and secular Shi’ites protested what they say was a tainted vote.

Meanwhile, workers in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala uncovered remains that are thought to be part of a mass grave dating to a 1991 uprising against dictator Saddam Hussein.

The remains — discovered Monday — were sent for testing yesterday in an effort to identify the bodies, said Rahman Mashawy, a Karbala police spokesman. He did not say how many bodies were found, but some reports put the number at 31.

The talks between the majority Shi’ites and the Kurds were seen as part of an effort to force the main Sunni Arab organizations to come to the bargaining table.

At a joint press conference with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of a formerly Iran-based religious party that helps make up the Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance, ruled out any possibility of reruns as demanded by the umbrella group contesting the conduct of the vote.

“The election results cannot be invalidated,” said Mr. al-Hakim, head of Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. “Elections cannot be held anew.”

In Warsaw, Poland’s government said it would keep troops in Iraq until the end of 2006, longer than planned, reaffirming its backing for the United States, despite growing opposition at home.

But the 1,500-troop contingent will be cut to 900 by March.

The previous leftist government, which stood up to European Union heavyweights Germany and France by firmly supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq, had planned to pull troops out in early 2006.

Polish troops in south-central Iraq are the fifth biggest military contingent after the United States, Britain, South Korea and Italy.

Bulgaria and Ukraine said they completed the pullout of their troops from Iraq yesterday.

The Shi’ite-Kurdish discussions come at a critical time for Iraq, with the United States placing high hopes on forming a broad-based coalition government that will provide the fledgling democracy with the stability and security it needs to allow American troops to begin returning home.

Preliminary results from the Dec. 15 vote have given the United Iraqi Alliance a big lead, but one that is unlikely to allow it to govern without forming a coalition with other groups.

Final results are expected early next month, and the Shi’ite religious bloc may win about 130 seats in the 275-member parliament — short of the 184 seats needed to avoid a coalition with other parties.

The Kurds could get about 55, the main Sunni Arab groups about 50 and the secular bloc headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a Shi’ite, about 25.

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