- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

BAGHDAD — Leaders of Iraq’s ruling Shi’ite Alliance bloc called publicly for the first time yesterday for Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step down as prime minister to break weeks of deadlock over a national-unity government.

Meanwhile, a U.S. combat helicopter came down, the military said. A spokesman said it wasn’t known whether the crew survived. A militant group said it shot down the aircraft near Baghdad, and a local official said residents saw a two-seater Apache gunship take fire and crash.

The move against Mr. al-Jaafari, declared publicly by one leader and echoed, anonymously, by others, came as parties held their latest round of talks on a grand coalition with Kurds and Sunnis.

Kurds and Sunnis remain adamant in their rejection of Mr. al-Jaafari.

A U.S. diplomat reiterated it was Washington’s “analysis” that Mr. al-Jaafari had not scored well on two key criteria for prime minister — his ability to unite Iraqis and his competence as a leader. But, he stressed to reporters, “We have no preference.”

He denied comments from rival Shi’ite leaders that President Bush had directly asked them to dismiss Mr. al-Jaafari.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say a unity government, more than three months after December’s election, is vital to averting all-out war after five weeks of spiraling sectarian bloodshed.

“I call on Jaafari to take a courageous step and set a fine example by stepping down,” Kasim Daoud, a senior member of the independent group within the Alliance, told Reuters.

A top aide to Mr. al-Jaafari immediately rejected the call.

U.S. military spokesmen would say of the lost helicopter only that it went down southwest of Baghdad around dusk and “the status of the crew is unknown.”

The little-known Rashedeen Army said in a message, posted on the Internet before the military statement, that it shot down a helicopter near Yusufiyah.

A local official in the town said residents saw an Apache come down and crash. The area is a refuge for Sunni insurgents who have claimed the downings of many of the more than 50 helicopters lost in three years of war.

A U.S. Marine involved in a clash with insurgents on Friday died, bringing the number of deaths in March among U.S. troops to 30, the lowest monthly toll in two years. But Iraqi casualties have been rising.

Mr. al-Jaafari won the Alliance’s nomination in an internal ballot in February by a single vote over the candidate of the bloc’s most powerful party, aided by Iranian-backed cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.

But senior Alliance officials, speaking anonymously, said four of seven main groups within the bloc now wanted him to give up the nomination for a second term if, as is all but certain, he fails within a day or two to persuade Sunni and Kurdish parties to drop their refusal to serve in a Cabinet under him.

“Daoud’s call is supported by at least 60 percent of Alliance members of parliament,” another senior Alliance official from another group within the bloc said.

“We need another 24 hours before starting the battle.”

The United States, anxious for calm that would let it start pulling out its troops, has stepped up pressure for a coalition seen as critical to stemming sectarian violence that has killed hundreds since a major Shi’ite shrine was bombed a month ago.

Privately, rival Alliance leaders have been turning against Mr. al-Jaafari, but the call yesterday was their first public stand against Mr. al-Jaafari, who critics say has failed to stem violence and bolster the economy in his year as interim prime minister.

Some also view the soft-spoken physician’s reliance on the Iranian-backed Sheik al-Sadr with suspicion.

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