BAGHDAD, Apr 1 (Reuters) Senior members of Iraq's ruling Shi'ite Alliance bloc called publicly for the first time today for Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step down as Prime Minister to break months of deadlock over a national unity government.
''I call on Jaafari to take a courageous step and set a fine example by stepping down,'' Kasim Daoud, a senior member of the independent group within the Alliance, told Reuters.
Other senior Alliance officials, speaking anonymously, confirmed that four of seven main groups within the bloc wanted Jaafari to give up the nomination for a second term if, as is all but certain, he fails to persuade minority Sunni and Kurdish parties to drop their refusal to serve in a cabinet under him.
''There is a broad trend inside the Alliance who want Jaafari to do this (step aside) and we expect him to do so,'' Daoud said.
''We have stood behind him for 50 days and today we have reached the conclusion that there should be a Prime Minister for all Iraqis, not just one group,'' he added.
''Daoud's call is supported by at least 60 per cent of Alliance members of parliament,'' another senior Alliance official from another group within the bloc told Reuters.
''We need another 24 hours before starting the battle'' to pressure Jaafari into resigning, he added.
Alliance officials said the seven key groups inside the bloc had met on Thursday and Friday and concluded by a four to three majority to give Jaafari just days to persuade the Kurds, Sunnis and secular leaders to drop their opposition to him.
That seems highly improbable but a committee of three Alliance officials was holding meetings with the Kurds and Sunnis today. A Kurdish political source said: ''Our position regarding Jaafari is clear and has not changed.'' The minority groups had formally written this week to Alliance leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim urging him to produce a more acceptable candidate. Jaafari beat a candidate from Hakim's SCIRI party by a single vote in an internal ballot in February.
It was not clear what mechanism might be used to choose a new nominee for prime minister nor who that might be. A favourite may be the defeated SCIRI candidate, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Jaafari continued to have the support of his own Dawa party, its Dawa-Iraq allies and the movement of Iranian-backed cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr. SCIRI and its Badr allies, the independents and the Fadhila party were against Jaafari.
US diplomats deny accounts from SCIRI and other Alliance officials that Washington has pressured Hakim to drop Jaafari.
However, a US diplomat said today that it was Washington's analysis that any prime minister must be both competent and able to unite Iraqis -- and that Jaafari did not score well on those criteria. The United States, however, had no preferred candidate in mind and would not impose its views.
Reuters TM BD1705