BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's president said Monday he would convene the new parliament for the first time next week, beginning a 60-day countdown for lawmakers to elect a new head of state and sign off on a prime minister and Cabinet.
After nightfall, nine key Shiite parliamentarians rushed to an emergency meeting at President Jalal Talabani's Baghdad home to try to change his mind about forcing a showdown in the deepening political crisis and further inflaming sectarian tensions.
A string of explosions in Baghdad and north of the capital, meanwhile, killed at least 14 people and wounded 52. Sniper fire also killed the Iraqi major general in charge of forces protecting the beleaguered capital.
A U.S. soldier was reported killed in insurgency-plagued western Anbar province, pushing the American military death toll to 2,300 since the beginning of the war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The violence underscored a dangerous leadership vacuum as Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians increased pressure on Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to abandon his bid for a new term, and leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority struggled to overcome internal divisions.
Despite the political squabbling, Talabani had said earlier Monday he would issue a decree calling the new parliament into session on March 12, as required by the constitution, which allows a maximum four weeks between certification of the Dec. 15 vote and the first meeting.
A leading member of al-Jaafari's Dawa Party, Ali al-Adib, said parliament's main Shiite bloc would request the session be postponed until there was agreement on who should occupy the top government positions.
Anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr predicted a "quick solution" to snarled attempts to form a government.
Emerging from a meeting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf with secular Shiite parliamentarian Ahmed Chalabi, al-Sadr said: "All obstacles to forming a national unity government soon will be resolved."
Chalabi, the one-time Pentagon favorite as Iraq's post- Saddam Hussein leader, said al-Jaafari deserved the opportunity to form a government.
"Dr. al-Jaafari should be given a chance. ... It is to the benefit of all parties to keep the (Shiite) Alliance strong and unified," Chalabi said.
But Talabani, a Kurd, said al-Jaafari was too divisive a figure.
"We want a prime minister who can gather all the political blocs around him, so that the government would be one of national unity," he told a news briefing in Baghdad.
The struggle to form a broad-based governing coalition acceptable to all the country's main ethnic and religious groups has been hampered by sectarian conflict and insurgent violence.
Many of Monday's attacks targeted the country's Shiite-led security forces, accused by Sunni Arabs of repeated abuses against them under the cover of fighting the deadly Sunni-driven insurgency. The government denies the accusations.
The bloodiest attack happened in Baqouba, where a car bomb targeting a police patrol exploded near the mayor's office and a market, killing six people and injuring 23, including four patrolmen, police said. Piles of charred, twisted wreckage and pools of blood marked the site.
At Baqouba Hospital, relatives of the dead threw their hands in the air and wailed in despair. The mixed Sunni-Shiite city about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad has been at the forefront of a surge of sectarian violence unleashed by the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the central city of Samarra.
Bombs, mortar shells and gunfire also rocked the capital, ending a relative lull over the weekend.
Maj. Gen. Mibder Hatim al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Muslim in charge of the Iraqi army's 6th division, was killed when gunmen fired at his convoy from houses along the route to inspect his troops, Interior Ministry official Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi said.
He died near where a key figure of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party escaped an assassination attempt Thursday. On the same day and in the same part of Baghdad, other attackers shot up cars carrying security men assigned to Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi. The men are from the same tribe but not related.
A suicide car bomber hit an Interior Ministry convoy in eastern Baghdad, killing two members of the security force and injuring three, police said
Another bomb exploded as a police patrol was driving through a northern Baghdad neighborhood, killing one officer and a civilian bystander, al-Mohammedawi said. Three others were injured in the blast, including a patrol member, he said.
Two more policemen were killed when a car bomb exploded in a residential street, said al-Mohammedawi. Three people, including one policeman, were injured in the blast, which blew out windows of nearby cars and homes.
Another car bomb targeting a police patrol exploded in downtown, injuring seven people, police said. The wounded included four policemen and three civilian bystanders.
Two bombs went off in Baghdad's notorious southern Dora neighborhood. One targeted an Interior Ministry patrol, wounding one commando, police said. A second went off as a U.S. patrol was passing, injuring five policemen, who were guarding a bank, and two civilians, al-Mohammedawi said. There were no immediate reports of U.S. casualties.
An earlier explosion near the Shiite Buratha mosque in northern Baghdad caused no casualties, police said.
Police found at least four more bodies that were shot in the head and dumped in parts of Baghdad. And three Shiite Turkmen were killed in a drive-by-shooting near Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
In Mahmoudiya, about 18 miles south of Baghdad, a car bomb hit a police patrol, killing a woman and injuring three other people, including two patrolmen, police said. A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. patrol in Jurf al-Nadaf, 10 miles south of Baghdad, injured two more civilians, police said.
In Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, a roadside bomb missed another U.S. convoy, killing an Iraqi civilian and injuring two others instead, police and hospital officials said.
And three Shiite Turkmen were killed in a drive-by-shooting near Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
U.S. officials regard a government with participation across Iraq's ethnic and religious communities as a key step in improving security and weakening support for insurgents — a precondition that would allow Washington and its allies to begin pulling out troops.
Under the constitution, the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, gets the first crack at forming a government and chose al-Jaafari as its nominee for prime minister.
But the Alliance has too few seats to act alone. And it is facing stiff opposition from Sunni, Kurdish and some secular parties that favor current Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
Al-Jaafari defeated Abdul-Mahdi, who is backed by powerful Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, by just one vote in the Shiite caucus, relying on al-Sadr's support to secure the nomination. Both al-Sadr and al-Hakim have strong militias behind them.
Al-Jaafari's supporters and a Kurdish delegation favoring Abdul-Mahdi have both visited Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, hoping to secure his endorsement.