BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's president issued a highly optimistic report Friday on progress among politicians trying to hammer out the shape of a new unity government. At least 51 more people, including two U.S. soldiers, were reported dead in rampant violence.
President Jalal Talabani said the government could be in place for parliamentary approval by the end of the month, though he acknowledged "I am usually a very optimistic person." He spoke to reporters after a fifth round of multiparty talks among the country's polarized political factions.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad brokered the sessions, with the Bush administration applying extreme pressure on Iraqi politicians to form a government. Washington hopes to begin withdrawing troops this summer, banking on a decrease in violence once a national unity government is in place.
A less optimistic Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whose nomination by the Shiite bloc for a second term produced the political stalemate, has said a Cabinet list could be ready by the end of April, a full month beyond the Talabani estimate.
The political talks resumed as some among the politicians floated what appeared to be trial balloons suggesting that the Shiite bloc would seek a way out of the impasse over al-Jaafari by naming three candidates for prime minister, according to politicians and officials close to the talks. They spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive juncture in the negotiations.
Among those suggested for the post is former National Security Adviser Qassim Dawoud, some said.
Dawoud told The Associated Press, however, that he had not heard such a suggestion.
"No one has told me about that. I have no comment," he said.
After Talabani spoke to reporters Friday, fellow Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said the high-level talks resumed and took up a 28-point political statement that would outline the program of any new government, once formed. Another negotiating session was set for Saturday, he said.
Talabani said politicians agreed Friday to a method for choosing the government.
"All the political blocs agreed upon the mechanism of forming the government, and in the near future there will be a government of national unity," he said. He provided no other details.
Al-Jaafari's nomination has been strongly opposed by Sunni, Kurdish and secular legislators. But in remarks aired Friday on Al-Arabiya television, the prime minister suggested he had no plans to step aside.
'There is no one in the world who wins unanimously except as used to happen during Saddam's era," he said.
On Feb. 12, Shiite lawmakers chose al-Jaafari to head the new government, selecting the incumbent by a one-vote margin over Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The rising death toll among Iraqis on Friday included five worshippers killed in a bombing outside a Sunni mosque after prayers. At least 15 were wounded in the blast in Khalis, northeast of Baghdad, the Iraqi military reported.
Baghdad police said they discovered 25 more bodies, blindfolded, shot and dumped throughout the capital. Retaliatory killings among Shiites and Sunnis have become increasingly common in the capital since the Feb. 22 bombing of an important Shiite shrine that unleashed the rash of sectarian violence.
The two U.S. soldiers were killed in combat in insurgent-ridden Anbar province, the American military reported Friday. The statement said the soldiers, assigned to the 2/28th Brigade Combat Team, were killed Thursday.
The deaths raised to at least 2,320 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an AP count.
Separately, the Iraqi mission to the United Nations said the country has signed two deals for a metering system to track oil and gas flows, a step that could help get its economy back on track and reduce oil smuggling.
Iraq's economy has been severely weakened by oil smuggling to neighboring countries, a problem that could be checked in part by the presence of a metering system. The smuggling has created a fuel crisis that leads to occasional shortages even though Iraq is one of the world's leading producers of oil.
Some experts believe that oil smuggling may be funding Iraq's insurgency.