Street violence overshadows new parliament

U.S. officials said a stable government is key to the pullout of U.S. troops.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Pushing the legal deadline to the limit, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani declared Monday that Iraq's new parliament will convene for the first time Sunday.
But an event that was expected to bring a glimmer of hope -- and the formation of a U.S.-backed unity government -- is instead being overshadowed by a perfect political storm. While Iraq's leaders are battling over the post of prime minister, sectarian bloodshed has left more than 500 dead over the past two weeks.
Party militias are exerting more control over the streets, and Iraqis are fed up with a weak government and collapsing services.
The political crisis revolves around the decision by the main Shiite bloc to extend the rule of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He edged out his rival by just one vote with the support of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Last week, an alliance of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and others called for al-Jaafari to step down and a new candidate to come forward. The call for a new premier followed shortly after the deadly bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra sparked a rash of the sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunni Arabs, sliding Iraq further into civil conflict.
"The most likely scenario is the worst," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary, University of London. "[Al-Jaafari] staggers through, with Kurds and Sunnis and others undermining him. So you get a vastly weaker prime minister, backed by radicals."
Split among Shiites
The crisis has laid bare a deepening divide within Iraq's majority Shiite community. The other contender was Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, backed by the faction of al-Sadr rival Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has portrayed himself as a technocrat and centrist who can get the job done.
Forming a stable government is seen by U.S. officials as a key step to enabling the start of any military withdrawal. A more distant goal, but one required before any U.S. exit, is to ensure that Iraqi police and security forces are capable of halting sectarian violence and coping with the insurgency.
Al-Jaafari has been widely blamed in Iraq for permitting the violence to erupt out of control -- yielding a week of sectarian killings and attacks on mosques that mostly targeted Sunni Arabs -- after the gold roof of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra was destroyed Feb. 22.
Days of curfew finally brought relative calm. But insurgent violence continued Monday, with eight car bombs -- five of them in Baghdad alone -- that took at least 28 lives, according to news agencies. One morning blast struck a packed market in Baquba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing six, including two children. Two of the car bombs, one driven by a suicide bomber, struck at Mahmudiyah, 25 miles south of the capital.
Prime minister's errors
Sunni Arabs blame the lethal result on al-Jaafari's inability to control Shiite militias and Shiite-dominated security forces, as well as a strategic inability to come to grips with the insurgency. Kurds further took issue with al-Jaafari's trip to Ankara, Turkey, without Cabinet approval, which has strained relations with Iraqi Kurds.
Al-Jaafari's entourage included no Iraqi Kurds, who hold top government positions in Baghdad, but some minority Iraqi Turkomen who are often at odds with ethnic Kurds, but have close ties to Turkey.
"The Jaafari government has a long history of failure," says Mustafa Alani, head of the Security and Terrorism program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "Everything has deteriorated: security, basic services, corruption. There is no major achievement."
"Weak government contributes [to the violence], state infrastructure is disintegrating gradually and militias are taking over," says Alani. "Those people [militiamen] are becoming more loyal to their parties than the state. I don't see how this can be changed."
The convening of parliament begins a 60-day period in which a new head of state must be elected, and a new prime minister and Cabinet agreed upon. Lobbying has been fierce for weeks.
On Sunday, Talabani increased pressure against al-Jaafari, by sending an adviser to push the case with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's pre-eminent Shiite cleric, in Najaf.
"We reject Jaafari because we believe that Iraq needs a government of national unity and new faces," said envoy Barham Saleh, who is also planning minister, after the meetings.

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