- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s fractious political groups are moving ahead to shape a national-unity government, progress that should help stop the carnage of the past several days, the prime minister and other leaders said yesterday.

Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, predicted that a new government could be formed within weeks. He made the comments after meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who said Iraqis remain optimistic about their future despite suffering through a violent week, when nearly 200 people were killed in two days, including 11 U.S. troops.

In an effort to help draw Sunni Arabs into the political process as a way to dampen the violence, U.S. officials for months have been communicating directly or through channels with members of the disaffected minority connected to the insurgency.

A Western diplomat yesterday reported a recent “uptick” in those contacts. Those insurgents “sense that the political process does protect the Sunni community’s interest,” the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. A similar “uptick” in communication occurred after parliamentary elections last year, he said.

A U.S. official said the coalition does not talk to foreign terrorists or supporters of Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime, but said it was important to isolate extremists from the broader Sunni Arab community. He also spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Meeting with Mr. Straw in Baghdad, Mr. Talabani said Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political groups had agreed in principle on a national-unity government that could be formed within a few weeks. Western diplomats in Baghdad have speculated that a government could be in place by the second half of February.

“Everyone is expecting to have it as soon as possible, but you know the devil is in the details,” Mr. Talabani said.

He said it should be easier to form a new government than it was after the Jan. 30 elections last year, when it took nearly three months.

“We are expecting within weeks, God willing, we will be able to form the government,” he said.

Mr. Talabani and other Kurdish leaders met over the New Year’s holiday with Sunni Arab and Shi’ite political leaders. The meetings in northern Irbil helped shape agreement on the general outlines of a broad-based coalition government.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a member of the Shi’ite alliance and head of the Dawa party, said in a separate meeting with Mr. Straw that the Shi’ite “alliance and the coalition of Kurdistan and the other tickets, fortunately, are keen to make a national unity government.”

“That common feeling will make the process easier,” he said.

Mr. Straw said earlier that the situation in Iraq remained violent, but its politicians were optimistic.

“I was trying to avoid any kind of pretense about the situation here in Iraq,” Mr. Straw told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. “It is very difficult. People are being killed by terrorism.”

Violence was greatly diminished yesterday. Four persons were killed in attacks around the country, and police found the bodies of four females, blindfolded and handcuffed, who apparently had been shot to death in Baghdad, officials said.

Almost 200 people were killed in attacks Wednesday and Thursday.

Thousands of angry Shi’ites also demonstrated against the wave of bloodshed and what they claimed was American support for Sunni Arab politicians in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum on Friday.

Final results from the elections could be released this week and could be fully certified by the end of the month after any appeals are heard. Some Sunni Arabs have protested that the vote was tainted by fraud.

The results are expected to show the religious Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance with a strong lead. The Shi’ites will need to form a coalition government, however, with support from Kurdish and Sunni Arab political groups.

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