BAGHDAD – Iraq's Shiite prime minister and Kurdish president emerged Thursday from three days of crisis talks to announce a new alliance of political parties, but the reshaped power bloc — while it will control a parliamentary majority — included no Sunnis and automatically called into question its legitimacy as a unifying force.
About nightfall Thursday four children were found alive in the rubble of Qahtaniya, one of the villages hit by four spectacular and simultaneous suicide truck bombs Tuesday night in the north of Iraq.
Saad Muhanad, a municipal council member in the region, described what he saw as the children were found.
"They were buried under the ruins of a house near where they were playing when the bombs exploded. We didn't hear them calling out for help until moments before a bulldozer would have killed them as it cleared the rubble," he said.
Muhanad said the children were related but he did not know if they were siblings. The youngsters began running through the streets begging for food and water after they were pulled from their entombment. "In a while some of their families came and took them away."
While some authorities outside the central government said at least 500 people died and have not revised that figure downward, Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Thursday that at least 400 were dead.
The mayor of the region pleaded for help, meanwhile, saying an even larger tragedy loomed if the shattered communities did not get food, water and medicine soon.
"People are in shock. Hospitals here are running out of medicine. The pharmacies are empty. We need food, medicine and water otherwise there will be an even greater catastrophe," said Abdul-Rahim al-Shimari, mayor of the Baaj district which includes the Yazidi villages hit by at least four suicide truck bombs Tuesday night. The region is in northwest Iraq, near the Syrian border.
He said rescue workers buried 30 more unidentified bodies in a mass grave in Qahtaniya on Thursday. The mayor said at least 250 families were left homeless.
Qassim Khalaf, a 40-year-old government worker, was crying while he spoke by telephone from Qahtaniya.
"We call upon the United Nations to protect the Yazidis because the Iraqi government is in hibernation. Right now, I can see some bodies still partially buried under the rubble. Hundreds of local volunteers are still working in the rescue operations," he said. "Eighty percent of the village was destroyed or damaged. Just awhile ago, we pulled the body for a 7-year old girl out of the debris."
Khalaf said five of his cousins were killed.
Yazidis, a small and obscure religious sect, have become targets of Sunni Muslim extremists operating in Iraq who claim the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis are blasphemers.
U.S. and Iraqi government officials have blamed the Tuesday bombings on al-Qaida in Iraq.
Barham Saleh, a Kurd and deputy prime minister, toured the area and ordered the Health and Defense ministries to immediately send tents, medicine and other aid. He also gave 1 billion Iraqi dinars (US$800,000) to provincial officials to distribute to the victims and relatives of those killed.
In Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed the political agreement as a first step toward unblocking the paralysis that has gripped his Shiite-dominated government since it first took power in May 2006.
But with a crucial progress report by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and commander Gen. David Petraeus due in Congress in less that a month, a senior American Embassy official hesitated to join in al-Maliki's enthusiasm given that the new alliance failed to bring in Sunnis.
"The major issues are going to have to be dealt and resolved with all three principle communities finding mechanisms through which they can make accommodations and compromises and ultimately reconciliation," said the official, who spoke on condition he not be identified by name.
The key disappointment after the days spent negotiating the pact's membership was the absence of Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and his moderate Iraqi Islamic Party. That portends even deeper political divisions, but al-Maliki chose a more optimistic assessment.
"This agreement is a first step," he said. "It is not final and the door is still open for all who agree with us on the need to push the political process forward."
Al-Maliki was joined at a news conference to announce the political grouping by President Jalal Talabani and fellow Kurd Massoud Barzani, the leader of the northern autonomous Kurdish region; and Shiite Vice President Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
They, along with Crocker, were said to have wooed al-Hashemi intensely as a legitimate Sunni component. But officials in the al-Maliki government said the Sunni vice president wanted too much.
According to the officials, who spoke anonymously because the information was too sensitive to attach to their names, al-Hashemi had demanded that all Cabinet seats left vacant by the Sunni Accordance Front resignations this summer be filled by members of his Iraqi Islamic Party.
The party is part of the Accordance Front, an amalgam of Sunni political groups.
The officials said al-Hashemi also wanted al-Maliki and Talabani to oust Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie and replace him with an al-Hashemi loyalist.
In the end, al-Maliki and his new allies gave up three days into negotiations, and signed a three-page agreement they said ensures them a majority in parliament to guarantee passage of legislation demanded by the Bush administration.
Chief among those draft laws is one on equitable sharing of Iraqi oil wealth among all sects and ethnic groups. A second would rehabilitate lower ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, who were kicked out of jobs by L. Paul Bremer, the first post-invasion U.S. governor in Iraq.
Four parties make up the new political alliance. The Shiites are represented by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and al-Maliki's Dawa. The Kurds are Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Barzani's Democratic Party of Kurdistan. Together they control 181 seats in the 275-member parliament.
Al-Maliki also called on the Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc with 44 seats, to return to his government and heal the rift.
Earlier this summer, Al-Maliki threatened to name rival Sunnis to the vacant Accordance Front Cabinet positions. He even mentioned reaching out to Sunni tribal sheiks who have joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in the western Anbar province.
Dozens of tribal leaders in Anbar met in the provincial capital of Ramadi and declared they would not participate in place of the Accordance Front.
The also disbanded the Anbar Salvation Council and replaced it with the Institutional Tribal Council of Anbar. That sidelined Sheik Hameed Al-Haies, former head of the Salvation Council who had allegedly agreed to work with al-Maliki.
In Baghdad, a car bomb struck a parking garage in a central commercial district during the morning rush hour, killing at least nine people and wounding 17, police said. Smoke poured out of the seven-story concrete building, and food and merchandise stalls below were left charred.
The U.S. military also said two soldiers had been and six wounded the day before in fighting north of Baghdad, raising to at least 44 American troops deaths this month.