BAGHDAD, Iraq – Bowing to intense pressure, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari agreed Thursday to allow Shiite lawmakers to vote again on their choice to head the new government, abandoning his claim on another term in the face of Sunni and Kurdish opposition.
Al-Jaafari's stunning reversal appeared to mark a potential breakthrough in the months-long struggle to form a national unity government to try to curb the country's slide toward anarchy and enable Washington to begin bringing its 133,000 troops home.
"The one thing I cannot compromise is my dedication to this heroic people," al-Jaafari told the nation in a televised address. "I cannot allow myself to be an obstacle, or appear to be an obstacle to that. I want to be assured of the path of the alliance, which represents the will of the people."
Al-Jaafari said he agreed to a new vote so that his fellow Shiite lawmakers "can think with complete freedom and see what they wish to do."
The U.S. and Britain have been pressing hard for the Iraqis to break the deadlock over al-Jaafari's nomination that has persisted since Dec. 15 elections, preventing the creation of a government at a time of increasing sectarian violence.
Sunni and Kurdish parties blamed the incumbent for worsening the tensions — with Sunnis refusing to back al-Jaafari because his government allegedly allowed Shiite militias to infiltrate the Iraqi police and carry out reprisal killings against Sunnis.
Kurds also believed al-Jaafari had broken promises to support their claims in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk. The Kurds want to incorporate the area into their three-province self-governing region.
Al-Jaafari won the alliance nomination two months ago by only one vote, beating Iraq's Shiite vice president Adil Abdul-Mahdi with the support of radical anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Stepping up the pressure earlier this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew to Baghdad and demanded quick action to resolve the impasse. However, several Iraqi figures complained the U.S. and British intervention had prompted al-Jaafari's supporters to dig in their heels against what many Iraqis considered foreign interference.
President Bush also urged the Iraqis to "step up and form a unity government so that those who went to the polls to vote recognize that a government will be in place to respond to their needs."
It was unclear what prompted al-Jaafari to clear the way for a replacement, only a day after he had repeated his steadfast refusal to step down. His Shiite coalition had been reluctant to reconsider his nomination for fear of splintering the alliance.
Al-Maliki told reporters that "circumstances and updates had occurred" prompting al-Jaafari to refer the nomination back to the alliance "so that it take the appropriate decision."
Bassem Sharif, a lawmaker in the seven-party Shiite coalition, said, "The alliance is leaning toward changing (the nomination). The majority opinion is in favor of this."
Acting speaker Adnan Pachachi later said the Iraqi parliament session scheduled for Thursday would be delayed for two days to allow time "to intensify our efforts to overcome the obstacles," created after Sunnis and Kurds rejected al-Jaafari's nomination.
"I am confident we will succeed in forming the national unity government that all Iraqis are hoping for," Pachachi said.
The largest bloc in parliament, with 130 lawmakers, the Shiite alliance gets to name the prime minister subject to parliament approval. But the Shiites lack the votes in the 275-member parliament to guarantee their candidate's approval unless they have the backing of the Sunnis and Kurds, whom they need as partners to govern.
With the deadlock dragging on, more Shiite lawmakers have shown a willingness to dump him — though they have been reluctant to do so overtly and break the coalition.
Resolution of the prime minister issue could smooth the way for filling other posts, including the president, two vice presidents, parliament speaker and the two deputy speakers. The Shiites could block Sunni and Kurdish candidates for those positions in retaliation for the standoff over al-Jaafari.
Late Wednesday, the Sunnis decided to support Adnan al-Dulaimi for speaker, a post held by a Sunni Arab in the last parliament.
Thursday's parliament session had been intended to vote on the parliament speaker and his deputies. Lawmakers have met briefly only once since the election four months ago.
Sectarian tensions have been running high since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and the reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics that followed.
Gunmen attacked a Sunni mosque Thursday in the southern Baghdad district of Saidiya, sparking an hour-long clash before dawn with mosque guards and residents.
No casualties were reported, but the walls of the mosque and nearby houses were damaged, police 1st. Lt. Thair Mahmoud said.
The fighting came days after fierce battles in Baghdad's biggest Sunni neighborhood, Azamiyah, that underlined the deep distrust between the country's communities.
U.S. officials said the violence broke out Monday when attackers fired on Iraqi army patrols and a joint U.S.-Iraqi checkpoints. At least 13 people were killed before calm was restored Tuesday.
But Azamiyah residents said they took up arms when Shiite militias and Interior Ministry commandos moved into the area. Many Sunnis consider those groups little more than death squads.
In a statement late Wednesday, the prime minister's office denied any ministry forces were involved, and said three insurgent groups provoked the clashes by purporting to be from Shiite militias and the ministry.
The statement identified the three insurgent groups as the Islamic Army of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and al-Qaida in Iraq.
It said insurgents were making a new effort to infiltrate Baghdad "for armed displays and to destabilize the city."
In other violence reported by police Thursday:
— Gunmen killed two Sadrist militiamen in a drive-by shooting in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Um al-Maalif. Elsewhere, the bodies of two al-Sadr loyalists were found.
— Armed men broke into a bakery in Baghdad's Dora district and killed two Shiite workers.
— A former officer from Saddam Hussein's security forces was shot to death as he stood near his house in the Shiite city of Karbala.
— A roadside bomb hit a police patrol in the town of Khalis, killing two policemen and a civilian and wounding seven people.
— A roadside bomb killed an Iraqi policeman in Baqouba.