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Iraqi politicians meet on govt, but no deal made

Written by: Staff
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Baghdad, Mar 14: Iraqi leaders, under heavy pressure from Washington, began intensive meetings today (Mar 14, 2006) to form a national unity government ahead of parliament's first session on Thursday, but few expected a breakthrough.

Three months after elections, Iraqi officials have yet to agree on who will lead the government, along with other important posts such as the president and speaker of parliament.

Amid an upsurge in violence, including bombs which killed 52 people in Baghdad on Sunday, the four main parliamentary blocs met today in a bid to agree a broad-based government widely seen as the best chance of bringing stability to Iraq.

President Jalal Talabani put on an optimistic face after the meeting, saying leaders agreed to form a committee to continue the talks and he hoped a deal could be reached this month.

''We had a friendly atmosphere, the opinions were close,'' Talabani told reporters in a joint press conference with Shi'ite, Sunni and secular leaders.

''We are walking towards forming a government, in my personal opinion I hope we form it before the end of the month.'' But Iraqi officials acknowledged they were running out of time and needed to agree on a new government as soon as possible.

A senior source in the Sunni Accordance Front, the main Sunni political grouping, said that his group was not optimistic and that leaders did not get into specifics at the talks.

Iraqi officials have been deadlocked on who should lead the government. Sunni Arabs and Kurds have rejected the powerful Shi'ite United Alliance's candidate for the job, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who they say has done a poor job.

The Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, said it would stick with Jaafari, who was elected in an internal vote last month and has said it will resist all efforts to thwart him.

''The Alliance still refuses to change Jaafari and for us this complicates issues and does not help solving it,'' the Sunni official said.

CLOCK TICKING

The parliament session set for March 16 is expected to remain technically open for days, without adjourning, to give time for blocs meet a constitutional requirement to elect a speaker in the ''first'' session, officials said. Sunni Arabs, who are seeking the post of speaker, and Kurds seeking the post of president for interim head of state Jalal Talabani, need Alliance support for their candidates, which means parties will need to compromise to get what they want.

The United States hopes a coalition of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds will tame a raging insurgency so it can draw down troops.

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has pressed Iraqi leaders to speed up the formation of the government. He said on Sunday they had agreed to meet continuously to push the process forward.

Sunni and Kurdish officials have noticeably stopped calling publicly for Jaafari to step down and in cross-party meetings in the past few days they said they did not discuss the issue.

But Sunni and Shi'ite politicians said it could still take up to a month before any agreement was reached.

Shi'ite and Sunni lists have met in the past days to agree on procedures for working together in the government.

Among issues discussed and seen as top priority were the issue of regional autonomy and amending the constitution which was ratified in a referendum on October. 15.

Sunnis have widely rejected the new constitution, which allows for more regional autonomy.

''Amending the constitution is a key issue for us,'' said Zafir Ani, spokesman of the Sunni Accordance Front. ''We think federalism in the centre and the south is a door to weakening the Iraqi state and fuelling civil war''.

Shi'ites said they wanted the support of the Sunnis in denouncing the Sunni insurgency against the Shi'ite- and Kurdish-led interim government. Another senior Shi'ite Alliance source said: ''It is a main issue for us that the Sunnis say openly and publicly that they denounce terrorism.''

REUTERS

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