Mon, Mar 07, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Iraq's Shiite bloc to form government

TIMETABLE The Shiite alliance is seeking the support of Kurdish political parties as it readies to end bickering and form a government by mid-March


Iraq's dominant Shiite-led alliance set a mid-March deadline to form a government, prodded to action by spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who demanded progress after more than a month of post-election haggling.

Members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the big winner in the Jan. 30 elections, met in central Baghdad and agreed Saturday to try to form a government and convene the 275-member National Assembly by March 15 after al-Sistani demanded that they stop bickering.

The US military, meanwhile, said it had launched an "aggressive" investigation into the shooting at an American checkpoint that wounded an Italian journalist just freed after a month in captivity and killed the Italian intelligence agent who had negotiated her freedom. Giuliana Sgrena, 56, who worked for Italy's left-wing Il Manifesto, flew home Saturday.

CNN also broadcast what appeared to be new photographs of Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda-linked militant believed responsible for many of the bombings, kidnappings and beheadings that have taken place in Iraq.

It was unclear when or where the photos were taken, but they showed a smiling, bearded man with closely cut hair who is believed to be al-Zarqawi. The photos show the man either sitting alone against a white wall or seated next to two different men. The authenticity of the photos could not be verified.

An explosion echoed across central Baghdad on Sunday, but it was not immediately known what caused the blast. A white cloud of smoke could be seen rising into the air near the Green Zone, home to the main Iraqi government offices and the US Embassy.

The Shiite-led alliance, which already has missed two target dates, gained 140 seats in the assembly during the election but is hoping to get the backing from the 75 seats held by Kurdish political parties so it can muster the required two-thirds majority to ensure control of top posts in the new government.

Sheik Fawaz al-Jarba, one of the few Sunni Arabs in the alliance, said after meeting al-Sistani in Najaf that the elderly cleric urged the group "to unite and to form the new government as soon as possible and not to delay this issue any longer, and that the interests of Iraq and Iraqis should be their first priority."

Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, an alliance deputy, said they agreed the National Assembly would convene "no later than March 15."

Another deputy, Fattah al-Sheik, said pressure would be put on interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the Kurds so a Cabinet could be ready by that date.

Allawi's party finished third with 40 seats in the assembly. He has been trying to build his own coalition in an effort to keep his job.

The alliance wants to name Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leader of the conservative Islamic Dawa Party and one of the country's two current interim vice presidents, to the prime minister's post.

"Al-Sistani demanded that we put aside minor matters and that we should be united. I am not comfortable with the delay in holding the assembly," said Mudhar Shawkat, a senior official in Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.

Shawkat said failure to convene the assembly "represents an insult to Iraqi voters."

Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two parties in the Kurdish coalition, has long been the Kurds' choice for president.

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