- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

BAGHDAD — Under U.S. pressure, Iraqi leaders decided yesterday to convene parliament in a bid to jump-start formation of a new unity government, stalled for months over the choice of a prime minister.

But Shi’ite officials raised doubts whether the session — already postponed once this week — would take place today as planned. They said the seven-faction Shi’ite alliance would meet this morning and decide whether to attend the afternoon session.

The Bush administration is anxious to get a broad-based government seated, hoping it will help undermine support for the insurgency as well as calm sectarian strife that has bloodied Iraq in recent months.

At least 17 persons were killed yesterday, police said, and the bodies of 10 others were found in Baghdad and Kut — apparently the victims of reprisal killings by Shi’ite and Sunni extremists.

Parliament had been set to convene Monday, but the session was delayed to allow Shi’ite leaders time to resolve the deadlock over their nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for a second term. Sunni and Kurdish parties oppose Mr. al-Jaafari, blaming him for the surge in sectarian violence.

But Mr. al-Jaafari insisted yesterday that he still enjoyed the support of the Shi’ite alliance, the dominant bloc in parliament, and would not step aside.

“As a matter of principle, I think the idea of making a concession is, for me at least, out of the question,” he told reporters.

However, Iraqi leaders are under enormous pressure from the United States and Britain to form a national unity government to stem the country’s slide toward chaos.

Shi’ite officials said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad insisted parliament convene this week in hopes of generating political momentum, Iraqi politicians said. After a series of meetings, acting Speaker Adnan Pachachi announced the session for today.

Lawmakers, who have met briefly only once since the Dec. 15 election, were not expected to decide on Mr. al-Jaafari but were expected to choose a new parliament speaker and fill other posts.

The Sunnis decided late yesterday to support Adnan al-Dulaimi for speaker, a post held by a Sunni Arab in the last parliament. Kurds and Shi’ites were expected to field their own candidates.

The Shi’ites control 130 of the 275 seats and get first crack at the premiership as the biggest bloc in parliament. But they do not have enough seats to govern without Sunni and Kurdish allies, who refuse to join a new government led by Mr. al-Jaafari.

President Bush yesterday called on the Iraqis to “step up and form a unity government so that those who went to the polls to vote recognize that a government will be in place to respond to their needs.”

Sectarian tensions have been running high since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra and the reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics that followed. Two days of clashes erupted Monday in Azamiyah, a Sunni district of Baghdad, over rumors that Shi’ite militias were coming.

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