Iraq's fractious political groups are moving ahead to a shape a national unity government, progress that should help stop the carnage seen around Iraq over the past several days, the country's prime minister and other leaders said on Saturday.
Iraq's Kurdish president predicted that a new government could be formed within weeks and said the country's main political groups had agreed in principle on a coalition of national unity.
Jalal Talabani made the comments after meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who said Iraqis remain optimistic about their future despite suffering through a violent week that saw nearly 200 people killed in two days, including 11 US troops.
In an effort to help draw Sunni Arabs into the country's political process as a way to dampen insurgent activity, US officials for months have been communicating directly or through channels with Sunni Arabs once or currently involved in the insurgency. A Western diplomat on Saturday said there had been a recent "uptick" in those contacts.
Those insurgents "sense that the political process does protect the Sunni community's interest," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
There was also an "uptick" in communication after last year's parliamentary elections, he said.
A US official said the coalition does not talk to foreign terrorists or those who want to bring back the regime of Saddam Hussein, but said it was important to isolate extremists from the broader Sunni Arab community. He also spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Meeting with Straw in Baghdad, Talabani said Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political groups had agreed in principle on a national unity government that could be formed within a few weeks. Western diplomats in Baghdad have speculated that a government could be in place by the second half of next month.
"In principle we are agreed to have a national unity government. Everyone is expecting to have it as soon as possible, but you know the devil is in the details," Talabani said.
He said it should be easier to form a new government than it was after the Jan. 30 elections last year, when it took nearly three months.
"We are expecting within weeks, God willing, we will be able to form the government.," he said.
Talabani and other Kurdish leaders met over the New Year's holiday with Sunni Arab leaders from the Iraqi Accordance Front, with head of the governing Shiite United Iraqi Alliance and Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The meetings in northern Irbil helped shape agreement on the general outlines of a broad-based coalition government.
Al-Jaafari, a member of the Shiite Alliance and head of the Dawa party, said in a separate meeting with Straw that the Shiite "alliance and the coalition of Kurdistan and the other tickets, fortunately, are keen to make a national unity government. That common feeling will make the process easier."
Earlier, Straw said the situation in Iraq remained violent but its politicians were optimistic.
"I was trying to avoid any kind of pretense about the situation here in Iraq," Straw told BBC radio. "It is very difficult. People are being killed by terrorism."
Violence was greatly diminished on Saturday. Four people were killed in attacks around the country, and police found the bodies of three females -- blindfolded and handcuffed -- who had apparently been shot to death, officials said.