Iraq's PM agrees steps down to break political stalemate

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Iraq faced further political turmoil last night as the Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari crumbled under intense pressure and announced he would step down.

The dramatic reversal - Mr al-Jaafari had previously refused to abandon his claim to another term despite Sunni and Kurdish opposition - means Shia MPs can now search for someone else who may be able to lead a national unity government. Whether the decision will offer anything more than short-term relief from the country's political deadlock remained unclear.

Leaders from the seven-party Shia alliance will meet today to consider possible replacements. But there is a notable absence of powerful candidates with the potential to unite the country's factions, so pessimism prevails over whether the new prime minister will be able to do anything more than watch the country's descent in anarchy. The reduction of bloodshed is seen as an essential precursor to Washington withdrawing the 133,000 American troops on Iraqi soil.

One urgent task for the new incumbent will be to probe claims that the Iraqi Interior Ministry is running death squads, responsible for the abduction, torture and murders of thousands of people - a claim it denies.

It was unclear what caused Mr al-Jaafari to suddenly relinquish the nomination he won by a single vote two months ago. He insisted on Wednesday stepping aside was "out of the question" but, in a letter to the Shia executive committee of the United Iraqi Alliance yesterday, he wrote: "I tell you, you chose me, and I return this choice to you to do as you see fit. I cannot allow myself to be an obstacle, or appear to be an obstacle."

The new nominee will require the approval of Sunni and Kurd politicians in the 275-strong parliament to become Prime Minister.

* A suspected militant on trial in Turkey has claimed he knows the location of the body of Kenneth Bigley, the British man beheaded in Iraq in 2004. Syrian Louai al Sakka, provided no evidence to back his claims.