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New heat on al-Jaafari to step down over Iraq's sectarian violence

Monday, March 6, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians increased pressure Sunday on Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to abandon his bid for a new term, while leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority struggled to overcome growing internal divisions.

Despite the squabbling, there were reports the new parliament would be called into session for the first time as early as the end of the week, starting the clock on a 60-day period during which it would have to elect a president and approve a prime minister and Cabinet.

The struggle to form a broad-based governing coalition acceptable to all the country's main groups has been further hampered by the surge in sectarian conflict.

Targeted sectarian violence killed at least five people Sunday. Three men died in a gunfight at a Sunni mosque in Baghdad and two relatives of a top Sunni cleric were slain in a drive-by shooting. Sunnis accused death squads allied to the interim government, allegations denied by the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry.

The political turmoil has left a dangerous leadership vacuum as Iraq's armed forces, backed by the U.S. military, battle to contain sectarian violence that has pushed Iraq toward civil war.

The Pentagon's top general said Sunday he did not think a full-blown civil conflict would break out, although he acknowledged "anything can happen."

"I do not believe it has deep roots. I do not believe that they're on the verge of civil war," Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

A day earlier, the commander of the U.S. military's Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, said sectarian divisiveness had been worsened by the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra last month and was a threat to Iraq's stability.

During a meeting with Iraqi leaders Saturday, Abizaid urged them to resolve the differences stalling the formation of a government.

"The shrine bombing exposed a lot of sectarian fissures that have been apparent for a while, but it was the first time I've seen it move in a direction that was unhelpful to the political process," Abizaid said afterward.

The U.S. government sees a government with participation across Iraq's communities as a key step toward improving security and weakening support for insurgents, which would allow Washington and its allies to lower troop numbers.

Under the constitution, the Shiites' United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, has the first crack at forming a government and chose al-Jaafari as its nominee for prime minister.

But the Alliance has too few seats to act alone. And it is facing a drive by Sunni, Kurdish and some secular parties that want to prevent al-Jaafari from continuing at the end of the government, favoring instead current Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Abdul-Mahdi lost in the Shiite caucus by one vote to al-Jaafari, who won with the support of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Abdul-Mahdi is backed by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a powerful Shiite leader who is frequently at odds politically with al-Sadr. Both have strong militias behind them.

Underlining the divisions within the Alliance, some Shiite leaders are troubled by al-Jaafari's ties to the radical and openly anti-American al-Sadr.

The Sunni Arab minority, meanwhile, blames al-Jaafari for the Shiite militiamen who attacked Sunni mosques and clerics after the Feb. 22 bombing of the shrine in Samarra. More than 500 people died in the violence that followed, according to police and hospitals.

Khalaf al-Olayan, a leader of the main Sunni bloc in parliament, said Iraq has gone from "bad to worse" under al-Jaafari.

"Al-Jaafari's government failed to solve the chaos that followed the Samarra explosions and did not take any measures to solve the security crisis that could have pushed the country into civil war," he said in comments posted on the Web site of the Iraqi Accordance Front, a Sunni group.

Kurds are angry because they believe al-Jaafari is holding up resolution of their claims to control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

"If al-Jaafari tries to form a government, he will not get any kind of cooperation," said Mahmoud Othman, a leading figure in the Kurdish bloc.

President Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd, was one of the first to publicly initiate the dump-Jaafari movement, calling for a candidate who could build consensus.

Two lawmakers from al-Jaafari's Dawa Party hinted Saturday that they got an endorsement for their leader during a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric.

But a senior al-Sistani aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the dispute, said Sunday that the spiritual leader indirectly suggested al-Jaafari step aside.

Sectarian attacks remained a problem.

Gunmen stormed a Sunni mosque in west Baghdad early Sunday, killing three people in a 25-minute gunbattle. Witnesses said U.S. helicopters hovered above the exchange of fire and U.S. troops forces moved in to stop the fighting and remove casualties.

Iraqi police and mosque officials said commandos from the Interior Ministry staged the attack.

Later, the office of one of the country's top Sunni leaders said one of his nephews and a cousin were killed by gunmen in another part of west Baghdad.

The Interior Ministry denied involvement in either attack.

Sunni and Shiite clerics jointly appealed for an end to the violence and called for Muslim unity and the protection of religious sites.

"Extinguish the flames of the sectarian treachery. Every drop of blood shed is a waste," said the statement by followers of al-Sadr and members of the Sunni Endowment, a government agency responsible for Sunni mosques and shrines.


Associated Press writers Alexandra Zavis, Bassem Mroue and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Abdel-Hussein al-Obeidi in Najaf contributed to this report.


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