Amid violence, Iraq launches talks on coalition

/ Source: The Associated Press

Shiite leaders have launched talks with Sunni and Kurdish politicians on a national unity government, proposing four candidates to be the next prime minister, a Shiite official said Wednesday, nearly six weeks after Iraq’s parliamentary elections.

The talks came amid a spate of sectarian violence, including the killing of a prominent Sunni Arab cleric that threatens to disrupt the forming of the new government.

A U.S. Marine also was killed by small-arms fire Tuesday in Karmah, 50 miles west of Baghdad, the military said, raising the number of U.S. military personnel killed since the war began in 2003 to at least 2,236, according to an Associated Press count.

Elsewhere, an Iraqi television journalist, Mahmoud Zaal, was killed while filming intense fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents near the volatile western city of Ramadi, said Thaer Ahmed, deputy director of the Baghdad television station where Zaal worked. The circumstances surrounding his death were not clear.

The U.S. military said it had no details on the journalist’s death, but it said seven insurgents were killed in two separate clashes in Ramadi’s city center.

Separately, a well-known Iraqi TV presenter described how she jumped off her second-floor balcony Tuesday in southeastern Baghdad to escape five masked gunmen trying to kidnap her and her husband. Nagham Abdul-Zahra spoke from her hospital bed where she is recovering from multiple fractures.

Talks begin despite sectarian tensions
The United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc that won the most seats in the Dec. 15 vote, started the talks on the new government Tuesday with the Iraqi Accordance Front, a group of prominent Sunni Arab parties, said Shiite lawmaker Baha al-Aaraji.

The alliance suggested four nominees to be the next prime minister in the government to be announced at the end of the negotiations, which could take weeks, said al-Aaraji, a supporter of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a member of a seven-man committee forming Shiite political policy.

The four include the current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Adil Abdul-Mahdi of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, nuclear physicist Hussein al-Shahrastani and Nadim al-Jabiri of the Fadhila party, a religious group whose spiritual leader is al-Sadr’s late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr.

Ali al-Adeeb, a senior official from al-Jaafari’s Dawa Party, warned against choosing a prime minister who will not listen to the views of other government members.

“We don’t want a prime ministerial candidate who decides policies on his own but rather sticks to the alliance’s declared policies,” al-Adeeb said.

Nasir al-Ani, a Sunni member of the Accordance Front, said his bloc will leave the choice of prime minister to the Shiites and instead work to build a new government despite the attacks against the minority community.

“The terrorist operations against Sunnis everywhere in Iraq will have an influence on our talks, but we will participate in forming the government,” al-Ani said. “There will be obstacles, but if certain blocs make some concessions, these obstacles can be avoided.”

Prominent cleric slain
A prominent Sunni Arab cleric, Karim Jassim Mohammed, 39, was shot to death Wednesday by police at a checkpoint heading into the northern city of Samarra, said police Capt. Laith Mohammed. A policeman also was gunned down in Baghdad’s Sadr City, police said.

Shiite leaders said the talks with the Sunnis have not yet delved into key concerns of the disaffected minority, such as provisions in the new constitution to transform Iraq into a federal state and ban key Baathists from government jobs.

Iraq’s most powerful Shiite politician, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has said the Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people, would oppose major concessions on some key Sunni demands.

But Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite Turkoman member of the Shiite alliance, said his bloc would listen to the Sunni concerns. “We suspect there are demands behind all the criticism,” al-Bayati said.

The government negotiations follow heightened tensions in northern Baghdad, particularly the mainly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Toubji, where dozens of armed men dressed in Interior Ministry police uniforms killed three Sunni males and abducted more than 20 on Monday.

Sunni religious and political leaders have blamed Shiite-backed security services for the violence, demanding government action and urging Sunnis to defend themselves against future attacks.

TV presenter escapes kidnapping
Abdul-Zahra, who presents various variety shows on Sharqiya TV, said five gunmen barged into her apartment on Tuesday morning and tied up her husband.

“For a moment I thought it would be better for me to die in my own way,” she told Associated Press Television News. “So I stood up when one of the men told me to, and when he turned his head to check if my husband was still tied up tightly, I used that split-second to break away and jump off the balcony.”

She then screamed for help and the gunmen fled without harming her husband.

The kidnapping attempt followed several recent abductions of foreigners, including two German engineers on Tuesday and American journalist Jill Carroll, who was seized Jan. 7 in Baghdad.

Carroll’s kidnappers have threatened to kill the 28-year-old freelancer unless U.S. forces release all Iraqi women in their custody. Iraq’s Justice Ministry said six of the nine women in detention would be freed this week, possibly Thursday.

The U.S. military has reviewed the cases of several female Iraqi detainees and a batch of Iraqis in military custody will soon be freed, said Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, spokesman for American detainee operations. He didn’t say whether the group to be released included women.