President tries to break Iraq stalemate

Talabani calls for new prime minister to avert threat of civil war as market bomb adds to death toll
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The Independent Online

Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, publicly urged Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to stand aside yesterday, saying his resignation would help persuade other parties to form a national unity government that could halt a slide toward civil war.

At least 12 more people were killed in further sectarian violence yesterday, despite the American commander in Iraq, General George Casey, saying he believed "the crisis has passed". A curfew was lifted in Baghdad, but seven people were killed and 20 injured when a mortar round hit a crowded market near a bus station in a town just outside the capital.

With negotiations to form a government stalled, more than two and a half months after the December elections, President Talabani announced yesterday that he would convene parliament. It is expected to sit for the first time next weekend to elect a speaker. This is unlikely, however, to end a stalemate which is beginning to create fears that a summer drawdown of British and American forces in Iraq could be delayed.

General John Abizaid, the top American military commander in the Middle East, visited Baghdad yesterday for talks with President Talabani and Mr Jaafari. Afterwards he called for a broad coalition of the kind Washington hopes can foster stability and allow it to start withdrawing its 133,000 troops. Mr Talabani said he had been assured US forces would remain in Iraq as long as needed - "no matter what the period".

The United Iraqi Alliance, by far the biggest Shia bloc in parliament, nominated Mr Jaafari for Prime Minister. He is rejected, however, not only by Sunni and Kurdish parties, but by smaller Shia factions, and opposition to him has grown since the wave of violence which began with the destruction of one of the holiest Shia shrines in Samarra last month. Mr Jaafari is accused of doing little to prevent Shia retaliation against Sunni mosques, fuelling attacks which have so far claimed more than 500 lives.

While Mr Jaafari's supporters in the United Alliance have vowed to resist moves to replace him, other Shia leaders are troubled by his ties to the radical young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia carried out many of the revenge attacks after the Samarra bombing. Mr Sadr's support was key to Mr Jaafari's gaining the nomination by a single vote when Shia MPs met last month.

"With all our respect to Mr al-Jaafari, we asked them to choose a candidate who is unanimously agreed on by Iraqis," Mr Talabani said. "It is not against Mr al-Jaafari as a person. He has been my friend for 25 years. What we want is unanimity."

The choice of prime minister has to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the parliament, making it unlikely that any government can be formed soon. Another stumbling block is the Interior Ministry, controlled by Bayan Jabr, which is accused of operating unofficial death squads drawn from party militias.

Yesterday Mr Jabr promised again to disband the militias and integrate them into the security forces, but did not see the need for haste. "The ministry is ready to receive a limited number of militias and distribute them to avoid the gathering of militias in one area," he said. Former militia members would be reassigned to posts with the Iraqi police, border protection, special forces and criminal investigation.

In his Friday briefing, Gen Casey said the militias were "a long-term challenge, a long-term problem and there's no silver-bullet". The US military hoped some militia members would, over time, be integrated into the Iraqi government forces.

The American commander said he still planned to issue an assessment this spring on the possibility of starting to withdraw US forces.