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Iraqi politicians seek more time to develop new government

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A month after Iraq's landmark elections, negotiations to form a new government have stalled and could last several more weeks because of disputes over territory, the role of religion and minority representation.

The delay has brought an end to election fever, with Iraqis growing more frustrated that the mostly Shiite Muslim parliament they voted into power on Jan. 30 still hasn't confirmed a prime minister or sorted out key Cabinet posts—necessary steps before the new parliament can convene.

Other key areas remain far from settled. There are no clear favorites in discussions over who'll hold the "big five" ministries: defense, interior, finance, oil and foreign affairs.

There also appears to have been little progress in determining who'll sit on the committee that will draft a permanent constitution for Iraq and, in doing so, determine whether the country becomes the secular democracy envisioned by the Bush administration, a conservative Islamic state or a battleground for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

Negotiators are busily shuttling between Baghdad, the Kurdish capital of Irbil and the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf, but concessions have been few and disputes fierce, said Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians involved in the talks.

Shiite politicians blame the delay on their efforts to reach out to disenfranchised Sunni Muslims, satisfy the demands of the powerful Kurdish minority and quell the concerns of Kurds and some secular Shiites that the cleric-backed United Iraqi Alliance, which won more than 140 of the 275 seats at stake, will veer too close to theocracy.

The one decision that seems to have been reached is the appointment of Ibrahim al Jaafari, a Shiite Muslim scholar who heads the influential Dawa Party, a mainstay of the alliance, as prime minister, the most powerful post in the new government.

Considered a moderate Islamist, Jaafari has received the backing of top Shiite religious leaders and is tolerated by Sunni factions, though he's opposed by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who's trying to lure independent and secular Shiites away from the alliance in a bid to win the job for himself.

Most observers believe Allawi, whose secular slate won 40 seats, has little chance of success, however, and politicians privy to the negotiations expect him to drop the challenge this week.

"There's no point in Allawi campaigning now," said a senior official in the Iraqi interior ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The election's over. It's too late for a secular bloc."

The presidency, a largely ceremonial position, will most likely go to Jalal Talabani, a veteran Kurdish politician who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Sunni Arabs—who'd lobbied hard for the spot—are expected to receive a deputy premiership, at least one important Cabinet post and speaker of the Parliament as consolation prizes.

But negotiations over the presidency continue, with alliance leaders weighing their debt to the Kurds against the consequences of leaving Sunni Arabs out of the top two slots. Iraq's current president is a Sunni, and Iraq's insurgency is largely Sunni-based.

"When the alliance decided to take the prime minister post, the Kurds moved in for the presidency," said Homam Hamoodi, a high-ranking official with the alliance and a member of the new parliament. "But taking the presidency away from the Sunnis is sensitive. Terrorists could distort this to their advantage and it could inflame the sensitivities of neighboring countries. Sunnis represent the third part of the Iraqi equation, and we have to face them."

Debate also is fierce over Kurdish demands to expand their autonomy in the north, preserve their peshmerga militias and give them control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The Kurds, with 75 seats in the new parliament, would be the easiest group for the alliance to team up with and establish a governing majority in parliament. But the differences between the alliance and the more secular Kurds have been difficult to bridge.

As secular Sunnis, the Kurds share concerns over a constitution based solely or primarily on Islamic law. They prefer to base the new document on the secular interim constitution drawn up under the U.S.-led occupation.

Shiite leaders, parroting U.S. military statements, have said there's no room in the new Iraq for private armies, a reference to the Kurdish peshmerga.

But the real sticking point is Kurdish demands that Kirkuk be added to the area considered part of the Kurdish zone.

The alliance's position has been to save the issue for a national referendum, saying it doesn't belong in governmental negotiations. The Kurds have disagreed.

"All the Iraqi people and the Kurds know that Kirkuk falls within the Kurdistan region, just like Scotland has recognized borders but is still part of Britain," said Rasheed Latif, a prominent Kurdish politician who's the interim water resources minister. "But this doesn't meant that nobody but Kurds can live in Kirkuk."

How to include Iraq's Sunni Arabs also is a stumbling block. Sunni Arabs, who benefited most under the rule of Saddam Hussein, didn't vote, their clerics called for a boycott and their most influential party withdrew from the elections. Still, they want a share in the new government, and Shiite and Kurdish leaders recognize the importance in accommodating them.

"If I belong to the alliance, I would worry very much about the victory I have," said Hachim al Hassani, the interim minister of industry and one of the few Sunni Arabs who won a seat in the new parliament. "It's a very big responsibility. For them to win and succeed, they have to bring the Sunni Arabs into the political process, not in a small way, but in a big way."

Sunni demands include setting a withdrawal date for U.S.-led forces, which Shiite politicians have said they won't do, and curtailing "de-Baathification," the purging of Iraq's military and government institutions of people—mostly Sunnis—who held certain levels of membership in Saddam's political party.

Sunnis also are lobbying against continued U.S.-led anti-insurgent offensives in Sunni strongholds, for fear of high civilian casualties and destruction.

While the alliance paints itself as generous in reaching out to Sunnis, some prominent Sunnis said they still don't feel included in negotiations.

"They want us to go to them and beg them. That's humiliating," said Mishan al Jubouri, another Sunni Arab elected to the parliament. "I dread the moment I'll speak in front of parliament for the first time. I'm worried I'll find myself a stranger among them."

One casualty of the delay in forming a government is early completion of the constitution, which was to have been done by August and voted on in December. But the law setting that timetable also allows a six-month extension—and most observers now think the extension will be needed.


(Contributing to this report were special correspondent Mohammed al Awsy and a Knight Ridder correspondent who isn't named for security reasons.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.