- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

BAGHDAD — Militants blew up 13 cars in three hours yesterday, injuring at least 20 persons while 13 Iraqis were killed in other violence that fed the turmoil after last month’s contested parliamentary elections.

Sunni Arabs made their opening bid in what could be protracted negotiations to form a new government. Leaders of the minority’s main political group, the Iraqi Accordance Front, traveled to the northern city of Irbil for a meeting today with the president of the Kurdish region.

Sudan, meanwhile, said six kidnapped embassy employees were freed Saturday, a day after Sudan announced it would close its Baghdad mission as demanded by al Qaeda in Iraq. A Cypriot kidnapped four months ago also was freed after his family paid a $200,000 ransom, a relative said.

A third hostage, a Lebanese engineer kidnapped four days ago, also was released, Lebanon’s official National News Agency reported yesterday.

The Kurdish region in Iraq’s north already has seen a flurry of postelection bargaining between Kurds and the governing Shi’ite Muslim religious party, the United Iraqi Alliance.

Preliminary results from the Dec. 15 election have given the Shi’ite group a strong lead in the voting for Iraq’s 275-member parliament, but not enough for it to govern without other political blocs.

A year ago, it took nearly three months of negotiations between the Shi’ite religious alliance and a coalition of Kurdish parties to form an interim government after a Jan. 30 election that was boycotted by the Sunni Arabs at the core of the insurgency.

The first quarter of 2006 looks more crucial as Iraq tries to shape an administration that will govern for four years. U.S. officials are pushing the parties to form a broad-based coalition government, and failed negotiations could worsen the civil strife.

“This is perceived, inappropriately or inaccurately perhaps, by the enemy as a time of vulnerability, as the government transitions from its transitional government to a permanent government, to the constitutional-based, democratically elected four-year permanent government,” said Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition force.

The Sunni Arab visit to the Kurdish region was the first since the election, whose results have been protested by Sunni and secular Shi’ite parties. Their trip came as Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a leading member of the governing United Iraqi Alliance, met yesterday with Kurdish regional president Mazoud Barzani and discussed the outlines of a future coalition government.

“We agreed on essential principles for exerting efforts to form a broad-based government, a strong national-unity government. Meetings will be continued later here and in Baghdad, and we will continue to cooperate until we achieve what is beneficial for Iraq,” Mr. Barzani said.

Final election results are expected as early as this week, and the Shi’ite religious bloc may win about 130 seats — far short of the 184 seats needed to avoid a coalition with other parties to elect a president.

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

The Irbil meetings came ahead of today’s visit to Iraq by a team of international monitors who will assess the elections, which have been endorsed as credible by the United Nations, but denounced as rigged by opposition groups. About 1,500 complaints have been registered.

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