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Iraq president says deal with some rebels possible

By Staff
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BAGHDAD, Apr 30 (Reuters) Iraq's president today said he and US officials had met with insurgents and that a deal with some groups to end violence could be reached.

Though US and Iraqi officials have spoken before of contacts with Sunni Arab rebels, the statement by Jalal Talabani came as Iraq's various factions negotiate on a new government and were among the strongest yet that some groups involved in the three-year-old war may be ready to lay down their arms.

''I believe that a deal could be reached with seven armed groups that visited me,'' Talabani said in a statement, adding that US officials took part in the discussions in the president's Kurdish home region in northern Iraq.

Insurgents in the Sunni heartland observed an informal truce during December's parliamentary election, allowing a big turnout among minority Sunnis, who had previously boycotted the US- backed political process.

A US embassy spokeswoman said the US position has always been to try to engage insurgents into joining the political process who are not associated with Saddam Hussein or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq.

Talabani said: ''There are other groups, excluding the Saddamists and Zarqawi-types, who are involved in military operations to remove the occupiers and these are the ones who we are seeking to hold a dialogue with and to include them in the political process.'' Talabani, who was re-elected head of state by Iraq's new parliament last week, said the talks took place in the northern region of Kurdistan. He did not say when the talks occurred.

PARLIAMENT TO SIT Iraq's parliament is set to meet on May 3, but Shi'ite Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki is not expected to unveil his cabinet line-up as Maliki is still studying ministerial candidates for a government of national unity.

Parliament designated Maliki a week ago to head Iraq's first full-term government since the fall of Saddam, ending a four- month deadlock.

Maliki, a member of the dominant Shi'ite Islamist Alliance bloc, is in talks with other factions to form a government made up of Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, seen as the best hope to avert a sectarian civil war.

Officials in various parties said discussions were wide- ranging and there was an array of division, including on the two posts of deputy prime minister. Sunni and Kurdish blocs have previously held one each.

But some negotiators are pressing for another Shi'ite, the secular former prime minister Iyad Allawi, to take one of those posts. Allawi's cross-sectarian bloc is the fourth biggest in parliament.

Maliki has said he will choose capable and non-sectarian ministers, including for the sensitive posts of Interior, Defence and Oil, based on their qualifications and not on their sectarian and ethnic affiliation and background.

Under Shi'ite leadership for the last year, the Interior Ministry has been accused of running death squads and militias that have targeted minority Sunni Arabs. Shi'ite officials deny such charges.

Maliki has 30 days starting April 22 to present a cabinet for a vote in parliament. An aide to Maliki's office said Maliki was still studying candidates for each ministry, which are to be submitted by each parliamentary bloc.

A statement from the office of assembly speaker Mahmoud al- Mashhadani said that on May 3 the 275-seat parliament is expected to form a committee charged with reviewing Iraq's constitution, which was ratified in a referendum in October.

Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam and before, are demanding changes to the constitution, including guarantees that Kurds and Shi'ites in the oil-rich north and south will not be granted more autonomy.

Parliament is also scheduled to choose a committee to draft the assembly's internal regulations.

REUTERS PR RN2130

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