Iraqi leaders: Coalition government almost in place, will help
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's fractious political groups could form a coalition government within weeks, the country's president said Saturday, as U.S. officials have increased post-election contacts with disaffected Sunni Arabs linked to the insurgency.
Jalal Talabani, Iraq's Kurdish president, offered a timeframe on the formation of a government after meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who said Iraqis remain optimistic about their future despite suffering through a violent week that saw nearly 200 people 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 on Saturday 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 condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A similar "uptick" in communication occurred after last January's parliamentary elections, 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 condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Meeting with Straw in Baghdad, Talabani said Shiite, 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," 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."
Talabani and other Kurdish leaders met over the New Year's holiday with Sunni Arab and Shiite 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 Shiite Alliance and head of the Dawa party, said in a separate meeting with Straw that the Shiite "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."
Earlier Straw said 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," Straw told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "It is very difficult. People are being killed by terrorism."
Violence was greatly diminished on Saturday. Four people 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 on Wednesday and Thursday.
Thousands of angry Shiites also demonstrated against the wave of bloodshed and what they claimed was American backing for Sunni Arab politicians in Baghdad's Sadr City slum on Friday.
Final results from the elections could be released next 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 Shiite United Iraqi Alliance with a strong lead. The Shiites will, however, need to form a coalition government with support from Kurdish and Sunni Arab political groups.
The rallies and threats by Iraq's largest Shiite religious party to react with force if the militant attacks do not stop renewed fears that paramilitary militias would take to the streets and carry out reprisals.
Sunni Arabs have complained that often brutal methods used by Interior Ministry forces already have pushed Iraq to the brink of sectarian war. In response, those forces were reigned in after pressure by U.S. officials to prevent abuses of Sunni Arabs.
Western officials say it's important for Iraqi forces working to establish security to be mindful of the political impact their operations can have.
Some Sunni political leaders upset over the alleged abuses by Interior Ministry security forces, which are mostly composed of Shiites, have discussed setting up neighborhood self-defense forces in response, the Western diplomat said.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, the biggest Sunni Arab political party, said neighborhood defense forces were only an idea that has been brought up during discussions over how to protect the minority.
"This occurred as a reaction to the attacks by unknown gunmen who were wearing police uniforms," said Nasir Al-A'ni. "But it's worth noting that such security forces haven't been formed" because such attacks have ceased.