Talks on forming Iraq government collapse

REUTERS

Sun Mar 13, 2005 01:56 PM GMT

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Talks between Iraq's leading parties on forming a new government have broken down, crushing hopes it would be in place before the country's recently-elected parliament meets for the first time this week.

Officials from the Shi'ite alliance that won the most votes and the Kurdish bloc that came second said on Sunday they had failed to agree on two sticky issues -- distributing top cabinet posts and extending the Kurds' autonomous region in the north.

Parliament is due to meet on Wednesday, more than six weeks after a landmark election that gave many in Iraq hope that a new authority would clamp down on suicide attacks, car bombs and execution-style killings by mainly Sunni Arab insurgents.

In the northern Iraqi town of Sharqat, a suicide car bomb killed six Iraqi soldiers on Saturday, the Iraqi army said.

In Mosul, a U.S. soldier was killed by small arms fire on Friday, the American military said, and on Saturday a roadside bomb killed two U.S. contractors south of Baghdad.

Many Iraqis blame politicians, for whom they say they risked their lives to cast ballots in the January 30 election, for prolonging a political vacuum while violence spirals.

Ahmad Chalabi, a top member of the Shi'ite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, returned empty-handed on Saturday from a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan to save the proposed Kurdish-Shi'ite alliance with the two-thirds majority needed to form the government.

"The meetings have collapsed. There was no deal," an aide to Chalabi told Reuters.

KURDS DEFIANT

Kurdish politicians were defiant, rebuffing the Shi'ite alliance's attempts to blame them for the deadlock.

"They want to lay the responsibility for the political equation solely on the Kurdish side," Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, told Al Arabiya television.

"We are willing to sacrifice the presidency to the Shi'ites if the Shi'ites sacrifice the premiership to a Sunni," Salih said in a comment laced with irony as the Shi'ite bloc insists that as election winner it should nominate the prime minister.

The Kurds, who number about three million out of Iraq's 27 million people, want the presidency for Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, and a top ministry -- interior, finance or defence.

They also want their share of oil revenue to rise to 25 percent from 17 percent now, and inclusion of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan federal region.

The crisis plays into the hands of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose cabinet could now remain in a caretaker role until a general election due at the end of the year.

Sunni Arabs, dominant under Saddam, largely boycotted the January 30 vote and have little representation in the new assembly.

Sunni Arabs dominate insurgent groups that have staged increasingly audacious attacks on Shi'ite and official targets in their campaign to topple the U.S.-backed government and stall efforts by the alliance to form a new cabinet.

In the deadliest recent attack, a suicide bomber struck a Shi'ite mosque during a funeral on Thursday, killing at least 50 people and wounding dozens more.

On Saturday, a suicide car bomb at a checkpoint in Sharqat south of Mosul killed six Iraqi soldiers. Regional army commander Lieutenant-Colonel Talal Mohammed said on Sunday the army had arrested a Yemeni in connection with the attack.

The counter-insurgency tactics used by U.S.-led forces have sparked anger in Iraq and caused strains with some key allies.

On Saturday, Bulgaria said U.S. forces had admitted they broke their rules of engagement when a unit fired on a Bulgarian patrol on March 4, killing a soldier.

A U.S.-led investigation showed the American soldiers were on high alert when they accidentally shot and killed Gurdi Gurdev, because insurgents had just attacked two other units nearby, the Defence Ministry in Sofia said in a statement.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said he could not comment until the investigation is complete.