- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite lawmakers met yesterday, the third anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces, in the first formal step to break the deadlock over Sunni and Kurdish opposition to their choice for a prime minister.

But the meeting, held at the insistence of the Shi’ites’ top clerical leadership, failed to produce any breakthroughs, as Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s key allies stuck by their support for him, Shi’ite officials said.

Iraq observed “Freedom Day,” a holiday that commemorates U.S. Marines’ tearing down a statue of dictator Saddam Hussein as Iraqis cheered in Firdous Square on April 9, 2003, marking the collapse of Saddam’s regime.

At least 15 persons were killed during the day, including eight suspected insurgents shot by U.S. soldiers in a pre-dawn raid north of the capital.

Representatives of the seven factions within the United Iraqi Alliance made no final decisions during yesterday’s meeting, but agreed to form a three-member committee to discuss the crisis with Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties that have opposed Mr. al-Jaafari.

Though the Shi’ites’ still support Mr. al-Jaafari, several names have been floated as alternatives. The Shi’ites face intense pressure from the United States and top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani to speed formation of the new government.

The Shi’ites planned to meet again today to review their options.

Late yesterday, the Shi’ite committee met with Kurdish leaders, who stuck by their insistence that Mr. al-Jaafari must go. Kurdish elder statesman Mahmoud Othman said the Kurds made it clear that they would not participate in a government headed by Mr. al-Jaafari.

Sunnis and Kurds have blamed Mr. al-Jaafari for the rise in tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which boiled over after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra.

Ayatollah al-Sistani has insisted that Shi’ite politicians resolve the deadlock as soon as possible, in the interest of national unity.

With Mr. al-Jaafari refusing to step aside and his key supporters standing fast, Shi’ite officials have been reluctant to try to force the prime minister to withdraw, fearing that it would shatter their alliance.

A Sunni politician, Dhafir al-Ani, said the Shi’ites had told Sunni leaders that they were ready to give guarantees to make the Sunnis soften their opposition. Mr. al-Ani would not elaborate.

Another Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, proposed that the new prime minister be chosen by consensus among all parties, a proposal that the Shi’ites are unlikely to accept. Mr. al-Mutlaq said the new government should be made up of “independents, nationalists and technocrats” not affiliated with “current political parties.”

The constitution states that the prime minister must come from the ranks of the largest faction in parliament. The Shi’ites won 130 of the 275 seats in the Dec. 15 election, making them the biggest faction but without enough strength to govern without partners.

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