BAGHDAD, Iraq – Facing the prospect of a Shiite Muslim (search) landslide, Sunni politicians offered on Saturday to participate in mapping the nation's political future. But Sunni rebels showed no sign of compromise, killing two U.S. soldiers and at least 33 Iraqis in a string of attacks.
Officials of the Shiite-led coalition that has rolled up a big lead in Sunday's elections said it wants the prime minister post in the upcoming government — casting doubt on chances that U.S.-backed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) can keep his job.
Meanwhile, police questioned the driver and translator of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena (search), who was seized by gunmen Friday near Baghdad University — the first reported kidnapping of a foreigner since last weekend's election. But police said the two were not suspects in her abduction.
Allawi, whose ticket is running a distant second in election returns so far, had been seen as a possible compromise candidate if the Shiites and their allies don't win the two-thirds of the 275 National Assembly seats needed to pick the government.
But the United Iraqi Alliance (search) — a Shiite-led group whose leaders have ties to Iran — appeared confident it would have to be given the top spot.
"The Alliance would like to get either the position of the president or the prime minister and it prefers that it be that of the prime minister," Redha Taqi, a top official in one of the coalition factions, told The Associated Press.
The presidency is a largely ceremonial post, currently held by a Sunni Arab, Ghazi al-Yawer. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani has already announced his candidacy for president, and the Kurds are likely to end up as one of the top three blocs in the assembly. Shiites and Kurds suffered under Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s regime and are expected to work together in the assembly.
The Iraqi election commission released no new election returns Saturday in contests for the 275-seat National Assembly, but predicted it would announce final vote totals by Thursday. The assembly must elect a president and two vice presidents by a two-thirds majority. The three in turn select a prime minister subject to assembly approval.
Partial returns from about 35 percent of the 5,200 polling centers showed the Alliance, which was endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with about two-thirds of the votes to 18 percent for Allawi, a secular Shiite. Shiites are believed to make up two-thirds of Iraq (news - web sites)'s 26 million people.
Most of those returns were from Shiite provinces where the Alliance, whose leaders have links to Iran, had been expected to run strong. No returns have been announced from much of Baghdad and from heavily Sunni Arab or Kurdish provinces.
But many Sunnis apparently stayed at home on election day, heeding boycott calls by hardline clerics or fearing insurgent attacks. That has raised fears that the Sunni Arab minority, estimated at 20 percent of the population, may not accept a new Shiite-dominated government, fueling the Sunni-led insurgency.
In a bid to avoid marginalization, a group of Sunni Arab parties that refused to participate in the election said Saturday they want to take part in the drafting of a permanent constitution — a chief task of the new National Assembly.
"The representatives of these political bodies that did not participate in the elections have decided in principle to take part in the writing of the permanent constitution in a suitable way," a statement from the group said.
The groups were mainly small movements and it was not clear whether they represent a major portion of the Sunni Arab community. The initiative was spearheaded by Sunni elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, who ran for a National Assembly seat.
Pachachi told CNN that he had talked with Shiite and Kurdish leaders about a role for the Sunnis in drafting a new constitution "and they all welcomed this idea."
"So I think this will help to perhaps lessen the tensions and help in satisfying the country to some extent," Pachachi said.
Nevertheless, there was little sign that armed Sunni groups — including nationalists, Saddam supporters and Islamic zealots — were ready to join in any national reconciliation.
Strong detonations rumbled through Baghdad at sunset, and police said insurgents had fired mortar shells near Baghdad's international airport.
Two American soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing Friday night near the town of Beiji, about 155 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Saturday.
A roadside bomb killed four Iraqi National Guardsmen early Saturday in Basra, Iraq's second largest city. Gunmen stormed a police station in the northern city of Mosul, killing five officers, police said.
The brother of Mosul's police chief was kidnapped Saturday, police said, three days after the official, Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Jubouri, threatened to destroy rebel sanctuaries if insurgents did not surrender their weapons within two weeks. Al-Jubouri said late Saturday that his brother was freed in a raid that netted nine of the kidnappers.
Elsewhere, insurgents assassinated a member of the Baghdad city council, Abbas Hasan Waheed, and a member of Iraq's intelligence service in two separate drive-by shootings.
Bombs and clashes killed seven Iraqis in Samarra and Tal Afar, north of Baghdad, and in Ramadi, to the west.
Eight bodies were found Saturday in Anbar province — five in Ramadi and three in the town of Baghdadi — and residents said they were believed to be Iraqis who worked for the Americans or Iraqi security services.
The extremist Ansar al-Sunnah Army posted a video on an Islamist Web site Saturday showing seven people being shot. The group said the seven were Iraqi National Guardsmen captured two days ago in an ambush west of Baghdad.
Police interrogated the driver and translator of the Italian journalist, Sgrena, 56, who was kidnapped Sunday near Baghdad University compound. Officials said the two have not been charged.
A Web site posting in the name of the Islamic Jihad Organization claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, but Italian officials said they were not convinced the statement was genuine.