- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims were confirmed in power by election results yesterday that gave them a near-majority and opened the way for U.S.-backed negotiations with Kurds and Sunni Arabs on a national unity government.

With Baghdad all but sealed off by security forces on alert for attacks by Sunni rebels who accused the ruling Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance of cheating in last month’s vote, two civilians were killed in one of several bomb attacks on U.S. and Iraqi patrols.

In the city of Ramadi, insurgents fired rockets at U.S. and Iraqi bases, causing some minor injuries, the military said. There was celebratory gunfire in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf.

Troops and police blocked roads between Baghdad and the restive provinces of Anbar, Salahaddin and Diyala and were hunting for the kidnappers who had threatened to kill a U.S. journalist by a deadline of yesterday. Leading Sunni Arab figures joined Jill Carroll’s family and colleagues in calling for her release. By midnight, Baghdad time, there was no word on her fate.

Despite angry reactions to the rejection of their complaints about the Dec. 15 vote, many Sunni political leaders, who boycotted last year’s interim assembly but now have a fifth of the 275 seats in the new parliament, are already discussing places in a grand coalition with the Shi’ites, Kurds and others. Seventy-five percent of eligible Iraqi voters cast ballots in December compared with 58 percent in the January 2005 election. An estimated 60.7 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

“Now that the results are out, we’re going to start serious talks in Baghdad to form a national unity government based on these results,” Alliance official Abbas al-Bayati said.

Sunni politician Hussein al-Falluji, accusing U.S. officials of pressuring international monitors to cover up massive fraud, said negotiations would go ahead.

Saleh al-Mutlak, who shares rebel aims, said: “If we can agree with our brothers on a national patriotic project to ensure the unity of Iraq, we will be part of the government.”

The U.S. ambassador, who coaxed rival factions into a constitutional deal last year, called on Iraq’s communities to come together now to form a government that includes all the main groups. Washington hopes consensus can reduce the bloodshed and let it bring U.S. troops home.

“Iraq’s political parties and their leaders must come together to reinforce their commitment to democratic principles and national unity,” said President Bush’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

A major challenge will be making good on a promise, extracted by Mr. Khalilzad, that Shi’ites and Kurds will review the new constitution this year to respond to Sunni objections to it.

The final results, which parties have two days to challenge, were in line with a profusion of earlier provisional data.

They gave the Alliance 128 seats, 10 short of retaining the slim majority it had in the interim assembly elected a year ago in a vote boycotted by most Sunnis, who then won just 17 seats.

The main Kurdish bloc won 53 seats, down sharply with the much higher national turnout. Two Sunni groups shared 55 seats, winning 44 and 11 places each.

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s secular list won 25 seats; and groups composed of Kurds, Sunnis, Shi’ites, ethnic Turkmen and Christian and Yazidi sects won from one to five seats each.

Regarding the abduction, U.S. forces rejected the demand of Miss Carroll’s captors that women prisoners be freed. As the kidnappers’ deadline neared, Sunni leaders joined her family in seeking her release.

Adnan Dulaimi called for the release of the 28-year-old Miss Carroll by kidnappers who had set a 72-hour ultimatum in a video on Tuesday.

“Release this journalist who strived for Iraq, defended Iraqis and condemned the war in Iraq,” Mr. Dulaimi, whose office Miss Carroll had just left when she was kidnapped on Jan. 7, said at a press conference. Her translator was killed in the ambush.

U.S. officials insist there are no plans to release women, despite remarks to the contrary by the Iraqi Justice Ministry.

The reporter’s father, Jim Carroll, addressed her captors on Arabic satellite television Al Jazeera: “My daughter has no influence; she doesn’t have the power to free anyone.”

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