- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2006

BAGHDAD — Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians yesterday turned up the heat on Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to abandon his bid for a new term, while leaders of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority struggled to paper over growing internal divisions.

Despite the squabbling, there were reports the new parliament would be called into session for the first time as early as the end of the week, starting the clock on a 60-day period during which it would have to elect a president and approve a prime minister and Cabinet.

The struggle to form a broad-based governing coalition acceptable to all the main groups in the country has been hampered by sectarian violence, which killed at least five persons yesterday. Three men died in a gunfight at a Sunni mosque in Baghdad and two relatives of a top Sunni cleric were slain in a drive-by shooting.

Sunnis accused death squads allied to the interim government, but the Shi’ite-dominated Interior Ministry denied the charges.

During a meeting Saturday, the chief of the U.S. military’s Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, urged Iraqi leaders to resolve the differences stalling the formation of a unity government.

The bombing of a revered Shi’ite shrine in Samarra last month “exposed a lot of sectarian fissures that have been apparent for a while, but it was the first time I’ve seen it move in a direction that was unhelpful to the political process,” Gen. Abizaid said afterward.

Under the constitution, the Shi’ites’ United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, has the first crack at forming a government and chose Mr. al-Jaafari as its nominee for prime minister.

But the bloc has too few seats to act alone. And it is facing a drive by Sunni, Kurdish and some secular parties that want Mr. al-Jaafari replaced with a member of his coalition, Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi lost in the Shi’ite caucus by one vote to Mr. al-Jaafari, who had the support of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. That troubles some Shi’ite leaders because of Sheik al-Sadr’s openly anti-American positions.

The Sunni Arab minority, meanwhile, blames Mr. al-Jaafari for allowing Shi’ite militiamen to attack Sunni mosques and clerics after the Feb. 22 bombing of the shrine in Samarra. More than 500 people died in the violence that followed, according to police and hospital accounts.

Kurds are angry because they think Mr. al-Jaafari is holding up resolution of their claims to control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

“If al-Jaafari tries to form a government, he will not get any kind of cooperation,” said Mahmoud Othman, a leading figure in the Kurdish bloc.

President Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd, was one of the first to publicly initiate the campaign against Mr. al-Jaafari last week, calling for a candidate who could build consensus.

Two lawmakers from Mr. al-Jaafari’s Dawa party hinted Saturday that they got an endorsement for their leader during a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric.

But a senior al-Sistani aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the dispute, said yesterday that the spiritual leader indirectly had suggested that Mr. al-Jaafari should step aside.

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