- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s dominant Shi’ite-led alliance set a mid-March deadline to form a government, prodded to action yesterday by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader who demanded progress after more than a month of post-election haggling.

Members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the big winner in the Jan. 30 elections, met in central Baghdad and agreed to try to form a government and convene the 275-member National Assembly by March 15 after Ayatollah al-Sistani demanded that they stop bickering.

The alliance, which already has missed two previous target dates, gained 140 seats in the assembly during the election but hopes to gain support from the 75 seats held by Kurdish political parties so it can muster the required two-thirds majority to ensure control of top posts in the new government.

Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, an alliance deputy, said they agreed the National Assembly would convene “no later than March 15.”

Another deputy, Fattah al-Sheik, said pressure would be put on interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the Kurds so a Cabinet could be ready by that date.

Mr. Allawi’s party finished third, with 40 seats in the assembly. He has been trying to build his own coalition in an effort to keep his job.

After meeting Ayatollah al-Sistani in Najaf, Sheik Fawaz al-Jarba, one of the few Sunni Arabs in the alliance, said that the cleric urged the group “to unite and to form the new government as soon as possible and not to delay this issue any longer, and that the interests of Iraq and Iraqis should be their first priority.”

The alliance wants to select Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leader of the conservative Islamic Dawa party and one of the country’s two current interim vice presidents, as the prime minister.

“Al-Sistani demanded that we put aside minor matters and that we should be united,” said Mudhar Shawkat, a senior official in Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. “I am not comfortable with the delay in holding the assembly.”

Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two parties in the Kurdish coalition, has long been the Kurds’ choice for president.

Abbas Hassan Mousa al-Bayati, head of the alliance’s Turkomen bloc, said a parliament speaker would be chosen on the day the National Assembly convened.

“It seems that the general opinion is leaning toward the parliament speaker being a Sunni Arab and the president being Mr. Talabani,” Mr. al-Bayati said.

A Sunni Arab speaker would go far toward appeasing the minority, which largely stayed away from the election to protest the U.S. presence in the country.

Mr. al-Bayati said the candidates would include interim President Ghazi al-Yawer and interim Minister of Industry Hajim al-Hassani.

The main sticking point in forming a government has been the alliance’s inability to broker a deal with the Kurds.

Kurdish leaders have demanded constitutional guarantees for their northern regions, including self-rule and reversal of what they call the “Arabization” of Kurdish areas.

In violence yesterday, a roadside bomb killed three Iraqi army soldiers and injured four in Baghdad’s Bab al-Mu’adam area, hospital officials said.

CNN, meanwhile, broadcast what appeared to be new photographs of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader linked to al Qaeda. It was not clear when or where the photos, which showed a smiling, bearded man with closely cut hair, were taken.

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