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Sunnis Reaffirm Opposition to Jaafari

Sunni Arab politicians reaffirmed their opposition to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Monday, urging Shiite politicians to come up with new names for the top Iraqi post to end the deadlock over formation of a new government.

Sunni rejection followed a similar statement Sunday by Kurdish leaders, who said they would not join a new government led by al-Jaafari. The statements by the two major blocs leaves the Shiites little choice but to reconsider their nominee if they want to break the stalemate.

A three-member Shiite delegation met Monday with the Sunnis to discuss the issue and were expected to report back Tuesday to representatives of the seven factions of the Shiite alliance.

Sunnis and Kurds have blamed al-Jaafari for the rise in sectarian tensions, which boiled over after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, triggering bloody reprisal attacks against Sunnis.

At least three people were killed Monday in the latest violence.

U.S. officials have been pressing Iraqi politicians to resolve the impasse and move quickly to form a national unity government to halt the country's slide toward chaos.

Several names have been floated as possible alternatives to al-Jaafari, including Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, deputy parliament speaker Hussain al-Shahristani, and two members of al-Jaafari's Dawa party, Jawad al-Maliki and Ali al-Adeeb.

Sunni officials said they restated their opposition to al-Jaafari in a letter Monday to the head of the Shiite bloc, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.

"We are still upholding our previous positions. We have reservations against al-Jaafari and we told them to let us know if they name new candidates," said Naseer al-Ani of the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front. "We don't know when they will get back to us."

Sunni spokesman Dhafir al-Ani said the bloc was asking the Shiite alliance for other candidates "so that discussions and decisions can be made on the names."

So far, however, al-Jaafari has refused to step aside, and his key supporters in the movement of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been standing by him. Allies of al-Sadr said they would abide by whatever the alliance decides.

"Al-Jaafari has to abide by the alliance's decision," said Qusai al-Rubaei, of the Sadrist movement. "If the alliance decided to withdraw his nomination, then he will abide."

But Shiite officials are moving cautiously on the issue, fearing a move to force out al-Jaafari could shatter their alliance.

But the Shiites are under mounting pressure from U.S. officials and top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to speed formation of the new government. Al-Sistani has insisted that Shiite politicians resolve the deadlock as soon as possible in the interest of national unity.

In an interview with "Fox News Sunday," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the Iraqi people were losing patience with the pace of government talks, still dragging on after the Dec. 15 election.

But Khalilzad said the process was complicated and that the international community must show patience.

"This is the first time that you're getting a democratic government, authoritatively elected people from different communities, compromising, coming to agreement," Khalilzad said. "So we need to press them, but also, in my judgment, we need to be patient to make sure we get the right government.

The constitution states that the prime minister must come from the ranks of the largest faction in parliament. The Shiites won 130 of the 275 seats in December, making them the biggest faction but without enough strength to govern without partners.

"The ball is in your court, make up your mind," Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie, a prominent Sunni cleric. "Our brothers in the Shiite alliance should come forward with a candidate that is agreed upon, not one that is controversial. Otherwise, we'll be back to square one."

Meanwhile, gunmen stormed a Shiite home in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora and killed a 25-year-old man and his parents, police said. Three corpses, each shot in the head, were found in the same neighborhood.

The body of an official of a Baghdad power plant was found a day after his disappearance, police said. In the Mashtal district, gunmen entered a grocery store and killed the Shiite owner, police said.

Drive-by shooters opened fire on a group of construction workers in the Shurta district of southwestern Baghdad, killing one and wounding another, police said. Two policemen were killed and several wounded in clashes with gunmen at a checkpoint in Amariyah.

In Fallujah, west of Baghdad, fighting between gunmen and police commandos guarding a truck convoy killed three civilians and wounded nine others, police said.

The U.S. military said a U.S. soldier from Regimental Combat Team Seven died from wounds sustained in fighting Saturday in Anbar province west of Baghdad. At least 2,351 members of the U.S. military have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

North of the capital, American troops raided two buildings six miles outside the town of Balad early Monday, killing a woman the U.S. military said was an armed insurgent and wounding a man who tried to flee. Several others were detained, and the military said it discovered an explosives vest and mines.

Police said the wounded man was a farmer and the slain woman was his wife. Those arrested were the farmer's brothers and cousins, police said.

In western Baghdad, gunmen abducted two doctors as they left Yarmouk Hospital. A parked car bomb exploded in Amariyah, wounding four civilians, and bomb and gunmen attacks on police and army patrols left several wounded.

In eastern Baghdad, a bystander was wounded in the crossfire after guards at police Gen. Khazim Khalaf's home responded to an attack by gunmen. Khalaf was home at the time of the attack but unharmed, police said.

Roadside bombs and mortar shells in Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, wounded at least four civilians, police said.

On Sunday, three gunmen killed the mayor of Qurna and his wife in a drive-by shooting in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. Qurna is the headquarters of the Danish contingent in Iraq.

Gunmen in Basra killed a policeman after storming his home, and in Karbala, two gunmen on a motorcycle killed another policeman at a checkpoint Sunday, police said.

Also Sunday, U.S. Air Force F-16s strafed a group of men trying to plant a roadside bomb near Samarra, killing "several of the insurgents," a U.S. military statement said. The F-16s and U.S. Navy F/A-18s also provided close air support to troops fighting near Mosul, Ramadi, Muqdadiyah and Tal Afar, the statement said.