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Iraqi leaders fail to name security ministers

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi government failed Sunday to name its three top security officials because a powerful Shiite party with close ties to Iran is insisting on its candidate for interior minister over the choice of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and virtually every other political faction, senior Western diplomats and Iraqi politicians said.

The Interior Ministry controls Iraq's police forces, which have been infiltrated by Shiite militias that have carried out revenge killings of Sunni Muslims. Al-Maliki has pledged to name a strong, independent figure who presumably would clean out militia influence.

But within the prime minister's own ruling Shiite coalition, there is fierce resistance that could not be overcome after a day of argument behind closed doors. No further meetings were set to complete the government.

Nearly six months after the December 15 elections for a permanent Iraqi government, the nation's top three security ministries remain without leaders. The stalemate came amid continued violence around the country and threatened to undermine the leadership of al-Maliki, who is so far unable to gain control of his coalition.

U.S. officials are banking on al-Maliki's government to take primary responsibility for security so that U.S. forces can begin to withdraw. Some State Department officials say privately that they don't know what to do if the al-Maliki government fails.

Just north of Baghdad, 21 people were executed at a makeshift checkpoint and more than a dozen bodies were found in the capital Sunday.

In Basra, where al-Maliki declared a month-long state of emergency three days ago, violence broke out in mosques after a car bombing Saturday killed at least 27 and injured 62.

Iraqi forces raided al-Arab mosque, near the bombing site, charging that they found insurgents and heavy arms inside. Between nine and 12 people inside the mosque were killed, officials in Basra said.

The negotiations that were supposed to lead to the naming of the security ministers began Sunday morning with many believing that Faraq al-Araji, a retired Iraqi army leader had won the support of Maliki, the Sunnis, the Kurds and most members of the Shiite Alliance to be interior minister.

Al-Araji is a Shiite and respected thirty-year veteran of the Iraqi army during Saddam Hussein's time.

"He is an acceptable person, not because we know anything about him but because he is an independent," said Ayad Samaree, a leader in the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party.

But top Shiite leaders were at odds over the nomination. Members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said they wanted Mohsen Abdel Hassan, a Shiite general in charge of border security and a member of their party, to head the ministry.

SCIRI, which was based in Iran during Saddam's regime, retains close ties with that country. During interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's term, Bayn Jabr, a member of SCIRI, led the Interior Ministry, a tenure marked by charges that government-sanctioned Shiite death squads operated from the ministry.

A senior Western diplomat, who refused to be quoted by name, said, "Some people want a weak person that they can continue to manipulate, and there is opposition to that." He added, "It's a fight between al-Maliki and Hakim," referring to Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, tried to break the impasse by participating in some of the meetings but was unsuccessful.

The government had planned to name the ministers of defense and interior at the same time Sunday to appease sectarian tensions since one minister will be Shiite and the other Sunni. Abdel Qader al-Obeidi, a Sunni and former military commander, is the likely defense minister, Iraqi politicians said. They have deferred on naming the head of National Security, the last open post.


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