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Iraqi leaders forge new political alliance
BAGHDAD -- Iraq's political leaders emerged Thursday from three days of crisis talks with a new alliance that seeks to save the crumbling U.S.-backed government. But the reshaped power bloc included no Sunnis and immediately raised questions about its legitimacy as a unifying force.
The political gambit came as teams in northern Iraq tallied the grim figures from the deadliest wave of suicide attacks of the war and -- in a rare moment of joy since Tuesday's devastation -- pulled four children alive from the rubble.
"We didn't hear them calling out for help until moments before a bulldozer would have killed them as it cleared the rubble," said Saad Muhanad, a municipal council member in the Qahtaniya region, where four bomb-laden trucks turned clay and stone homes into tombs for hundreds belonging to a small religious group considered as infidels by hard-line Muslims.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Thursday that at least 400 were dead -- apparently all members of the ancient Yazidi sect that mixes elements of Islam, Christianity and other faiths. Some authorities outside the central government had said at least 500 people died and have not revised that figure downward.
The four small survivors were related, Muhanad said, but he did not know if they were siblings. No other details about the children were known. The freed youngsters began running through the streets begging for food and water.
"In a while, some of their families came and took them away," Muhanad said.
The mayor of the region pleaded for help, meanwhile, saying an even larger tragedy loomed if the shattered communities did not get food, water and medicine soon.
"People are in shock. Hospitals here are running out of medicine. The pharmacies are empty. We need food, medicine and water; otherwise there will be an even greater catastrophe," said Abdul-Rahim al-Shimari, mayor of the Baaj district, which includes the Kurdish-speaking Yazidi villages hit by the suicide blasts blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq.
The region is in northwest Iraq, near the Syrian border -- suggesting the extremist group could be pushing into new areas in northern Iraq after being driven from strongholds by U.S.-led offensives.
Barham Saleh, a Kurd and deputy prime minister, toured the area and ordered the Health and Defense ministries to immediately send tents, medicine and other aid. He also allocated $800,000 to provincial officials to distribute to the victims and relatives.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the bombings "in the strongest terms," saying they were aimed at widening the sectarian and ethnic divide in Iraq. Council members called for an end to sectarian violence.
In Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed the political agreement as a first step toward unblocking the paralysis that has gripped his Shiite-dominated government since it first took power in May 2006.
The new Shiite-Kurdish coalition will retain a majority in parliament -- 181 of the 275 seats -- and apparently have a clear path to pass legislation demanded by the Bush administration, including a law on sharing Iraq's oil wealth among Iraqi groups and returning some Saddam Hussein-era officials purged under earlier White House policies.
A crucial progress report by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and commander Gen. David Petraeus is due in Congress in less that a month. But a senior American Embassy official hesitated to join in al-Maliki's enthusiasm because the new alliance of Shiites and Kurds failed to bring in Sunnis, who were favored under Saddam and are now crucial to efforts for future stability.
The U.S. official said "all three principle communities" in Iraq need to find ways to "make accommodations and compromises and ultimately reconciliation." The official spoke on condition he not be identified by name.
The key disappointment was the absence of Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and his moderate Iraqi Islamic Party. That portends even deeper political divisions, but al-Maliki called the agreement "a first step."
"It is not final and the door is still open for all who agree with us on the need to push the political process forward," he said.
Al-Maliki was joined at a news conference to announce the political grouping by President Jalal Talabani and fellow Kurd Massoud Barzani, the leader of the northern autonomous Kurdish region; and Shiite Vice President Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
They, along with the U.S. ambassador, were said to have wooed al-Hashemi intensely to join the new leadership bloc. But officials in the al-Maliki government said the Sunni vice president wanted too much.
Among his demands was that members of his Iraqi Islamic Party fill all the Cabinet posts vacated by a mass resignation by another party, the Sunni Accordance Front, according to the officials, who spoke anonymously because the information was too sensitive to attach to their names.
The officials said al-Hashemi also wanted one of his loyalists to replace Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie.
In Baghdad, a car bomb struck a parking garage in a central commercial district during the morning rush hour, killing at least nine people and wounding 17, police said. Smoke poured out of the seven-story concrete building, and food and merchandise stalls below were left charred.
The U.S. military also said three soldiers had been killed. Two soldiers died Wednesday and six were wounded in fighting north of Baghdad. The military said one soldier died Thursday in Baghdad of noncombat causes. At least 45 American troops have died this month.