Bitter rivalry between two powerful clans for leadership of Iraq's Shiite Muslims snarled efforts Tuesday to agree on the next prime minister, the key issue that is blocking a national unity government. Meanwhile, the U.S. military reported the deaths of five more soldiers, including three killed Tuesday in a roadside bombing north of the capital.
On Wednesday, gunmen in Baghdad hunted down three different government employees and shot them dead on their way to work, police said.
An internal affairs officer at the Interior Ministry was killed by men in two cars while leaving his house in Amil in western Baghdad. A Housing Ministry employee was killed as he drove to work in the same neighborhood, police said.
In northern Baghdad, gunmen shot down an Oil Ministry worker at a bus stop, police said.
The motives of the attacks were not known, police said.
The latest casualties raised the U.S. death toll so far this month to at least 31 — the same for all of March, according to an Associated Press count.
Neither side showed any sign of compromise over Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leaving negotiations deadlocked four months after elections for a new parliament that the Bush administration hopes can improve stability and lessen the need for U.S. troops.
Violence took at least 23 lives Tuesday. A car bombing killed five people, and three others died when a bomb exploded on a minibus, both attacks in Shiite areas of the capital, police said.
Police also found the bodies of 24 people — apparent victims of sectarian death squads. Most of the bodies were found in Baghdad but it was unclear when they died, police said.
Sunni Arabs and Kurds, whom the Shiites need as coalition partners in parliament, blame al-Jaafari, a Shiite, for the rise in sectarian violence bloodying Iraq. They are demanding that he be replaced before they agree to join a new government.
Al-Jaafari has repeatedly refused to step aside. And his Dawa party and his key backer, radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, remained firm in their support for him during a meeting of the seven factions in the Shiite alliance Tuesday.
Behind the scenes, al-Jaafari's bid to remain prime minister is opposed by the biggest Shiite party, which is led by a member of a family that has competed for decades with al-Sadr's clan to lead Shiites.
Shiite negotiators planned to meet again Wednesday, but officials said there was no hint an agreement was near.
Al-Jaafari barely won nomination during a vote in February among Shiite lawmakers, who are the largest bloc in parliament.
Shiite officials said his supporters fear removing him would bolster the position of the biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
SCIRI is led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose family has long been a rival of al-Sadr's clan for leadership of the Shiite community, which is an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million people.
Al-Sadr was credited with engineering al-Jaafari's nomination victory in February, which he won by a single vote over al-Hakim's candidate, Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
Al-Jaafari's supporters want assurances that if the prime minister steps aside, he will not be replaced by Abdul-Mahdi or someone else from al-Hakim's party, Shiite officials said.
"There are long-running tensions between SCIRI and the Sadrists," said Khalid al-Attiyah, an independent Shiite politician. "There have been problems between them before. This generates a state of mutual mistrust."
The rivalry between al-Hakim's family and the al-Sadr clan goes back decades, when they began competing for power in Najaf, the seat of the Shiite religious leadership. Both families claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad and have produced distinguished figures.
Imam Musa al-Sadr was the most important Shiite figure in Lebanon until he disappeared on a trip to Libya in 1978. Muqtada al-Sadr's father, aunt and uncle were killed by Saddam Hussein's agents. Al-Hakim lost more than 70 family members during the former regime.
Al-Hakim's older brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, fled to Iran and led the Iraqi Shiite opposition to Saddam from there. He returned to Iraq after Saddam's fall but was killed in a huge truck bombing in Najaf in August.
Since then, militias linked to the two families have competed for leadership in the cities and towns of the Shiite heartland south of Baghdad.
Last summer, a fist fight in Najaf between followers and opponents of al-Sadr triggered battles throughout southern Iraq between the cleric's supporters and followers of al-Hakim's party. Four Cabinet members and 20 parliament members linked to al-Sadr walked off the job until al-Jaafari intervened.
In reporting the bombing that killed three U.S. soldiers Tuesday, the U.S. military also announced the deaths of two other Americans in combat Sunday. One suffered fatal wounds in Anbar province west of Baghdad and the other was killed by a roadside bomb near Balad, the military said.
At least 2,359 U.S. military personnel have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven civilians employed by the U.S. military.