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Failure to form government is hurting Iraq, leaders admit

BAGHDAD—Iraqi leaders acknowledge that their inability to form a government more than three months after national elections aggravates religious and ethnic violence and is eroding public confidence that they can solve the nation's problems.

Some leaders said that forming an effective and inclusive democratic state takes time, but the security situation does not give them that luxury. Some fear that even after a government is formed, it could be difficult to reverse religious tensions that have only increased since the Dec. 15 elections.

"The situation is getting worse, and people are losing hope. That despair stokes violence," said Saleh Al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Muslim and member of the Iraqi National Dialogue slate.

Since the Feb. 22 bombing of the sacred Shiite Golden Dome in Samarra, as many as 1,000 people have been killed in retaliatory violence. Another 10 bodies were discovered throughout Baghdad Saturday, nearly all tortured.

Both sects of Islam are under attack. Scores of the dead have been Sunnis killed by largely Shiite militias, while Shiites have been targeted by the Sunni-dominated insurgency. The tit-for-tat killings cause Iraqis to feel that they must fend for themselves because the state cannot protect them from members of their rival sect, who are often their neighbors.

On Saturday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said that militias now are killing more Iraqis than the insurgency, an apparent reversal since the election.

"It obviously is not good to have a vacuum. That is undeniable," said Barham Saleh, a top Kurdish leader. "We need to make a change and bring about a government."

Leaders offered a myriad of reasons for the delay in forming a government, and their reasoning often reflected their religious or ethnic loyalties. Shiite leaders accused American officials of interfering too much, saying the Americans want to give Sunnis more power than they earned in the election. Sunnis charged that the other parties are not committed to a national unity government and are unwilling to share power.

The Shiite slate, the United Iraqi Alliance, won 128 seats, 10 short of a majority; members will serve four-year terms.

Khalilzad has "shown bias to certain groups and that impedes the flow of negotiations," said Haider Ibadi, an advisor to interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari. "There must be coordination and cooperation among Iraqi groups to accelerate the formation of the government. Instead, it is clear there is an effort to weaken the biggest block."

Still others said the delay was because leaders couldn't decide whether the newly created National Security Council should be more than an advisory board. And they said they still don't know who will serve in key ministries, like Defense and Interior.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish National Assembly member, said elected leaders did not begin serious discussions until 10 days ago.

Shortly after the election for Iraq's 275-member parliament, U.S. leaders said the new governing body must be more representative than the largely Shiite interim assembly. They said that if Sunnis still feel ostracized after voting, it could strengthen the insurgency.

Despite the delay, the fact that elected leaders are willing to take some responsibility for the state of the country is encouraging, said Noah Feldman, a law professor of New York University, who visited Iraq with U.S. officials in 2003.

"If they are acknowledging that the delay is costing them—that it is making things worse—that is a step in the right direction," said Feldman.

During a visit to Khartoum Friday, Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said he was optimistic that the parties would not continuing holding out for only their own interests.

"If we fail to get a government that is accepted by all key Iraqi political players and communities, the country would degenerate into more instability and everybody would then take the law into their own hands and the country would be divided," he said.

Jaafari has said he thinks leaders will form a new government by the end of next month.

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Knight Ridder special correspondents Ahmed Mukhtar and Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this report.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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