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Iraqi Leader Predicts New Government

Iraq's president predicted Saturday that a new government could be formed within weeks and said the country's main political groups had agreed in principle on a coalition of national unity.

He made the comments after meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who said Iraqis remained optimistic about their future despite suffering through a particularly violent week that saw nearly 200 people killed in two days, including 11 U.S. troops.

The violence continued Saturday with a suicide car bomber blowing himself up next to an Interior Ministry patrol, killing one officer and wounding 11 people — including five civilians, Capt. Mohammed Jassim Jabr said.

A few hours later, gunmen fired on a civilian car in a northwestern Baghdad neighborhood, killing a woman and wounding two men, police Lt. Mohammed Khayoun said.

Meeting with Straw in Baghdad, Talabani said Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political groups had agreed in principle on a national unity government that could be formed within a few weeks. Western diplomats in Baghdad have speculated that a government could be in place by the second half of February.

"In principle we are agreed to have a national unity government. Everyone is expecting to have it as soon as possible, but you know the devil is in the details," Talabani said.

He said it should be easier to form a new government than it was after the Jan. 30 elections, when it took nearly three months.

"We are expecting within weeks, God willing, we will be able to form the government," Talabani said.

Talabani and other Kurdish leaders met over the New Year's holiday with Sunni Arab leaders from the Iraqi Accordance Front and with the head of the governing Shiite United Iraqi Alliance. The meetings in northern Irbil helped shape agreement on the general outlines of a broad-based coalition government.

"No doubt this government cannot be formed without the collective effort of the basic political entities," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a member of the Shiite Alliance, said.

He added that the Shiite "alliance and the coalition of Kurdistan and the other tickets, fortunately, are keen to make a national unity government. That common feeling will make the process easier."

Al-Jaafari said increased participation of Sunni Arabs in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections would speed up the process after "we lost three months" in January.

"The forming of a national unity government will be very much easier," he said after meeting Straw.

Earlier Straw said the situation in Iraq remained violent but its politicians were optimistic.

"I was trying to avoid any kind of pretense about the situation here in Iraq," Straw told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "It is very difficult. People are being killed by terrorism."

In Baghdad's Sadr City slum and in its northern Kazimiyah suburb, thousands of angry Shiites rallied after Friday prayers to condemn twin suicide attacks Thursday that killed at least 136 people, including the U.S. troops.

On Wednesday, 53 people died in attacks, including 32 killed by a suicide bomber at a Shiite funeral.

The protesters also denounced what they claimed was American backing for Sunni Arab politicians who have supported insurgent groups and are protesting that last month's elections were tainted by fraud.

Final results from the elections could be released next week and be fully certified by the end of the month after any appeals are heard.

They are expected to show the religious Shiite United Iraqi Alliance with a strong lead. The Shiites will, however, need to form a coalition government with support from Kurdish and Sunni Arab political groups.

The rallies and threats by the Iraq's largest Shiite religious party to react with force if the militant attacks continue renewed fears that paramilitary militias would take to the streets and carry out reprisals.

Sunni Arabs have complained that often brutal methods used by Interior Ministry forces already have pushed Iraq to the brink of sectarian war.

"The attacks over the last few days reinforced the importance of building national unity in Iraq and stopping those who would try to foment sectarian strife," said Robert Ford, the U.S. Embassy's political councilor.

The demonstrations were organized by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — one of two religious parties that makes up the governing Alliance.

SCIRI and Badr Brigade Secretary-General Hadi al-Amiri have blamed hard-line Sunni groups of inciting the violence and said the Defense and Interior ministries — both dominated by Shiites — were being restrained by the U.S.-led coalition and had to be unleashed. The Badr Brigade is SCIRI's military wing.

Moderate Shiite leaders, including Iraq's most prominent cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for cooperation.