Infighting Impedes Progress of Iraqi Government

Iraqi leaders continue talks on a new government as sectarian violence rises. Sunni leaders are now seeking U.S. help, while the majority Shia are angry at what they see as U.S. interference in political negotiations.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, charges of racial harassment on Long Island. But first, in Baghdad yesterday Iraq's political leaders resumed talks on the formation of a national unity government. But disputes continue to hamper that process against a backdrop of killings and bombings. NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report from Baghdad.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

On the surface it all seems amiable enough. Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani stands at the end of a tiled walkway to personally greet each of his guests. These are the major players in Iraq's ongoing political drama. They come to the stately home in a compound of small palaces that once belonged to Saddam Hussein's family. Shiite clerics smile and shake Talabani's hand. Sunni politicians lean in and exchange kisses with the President. Each of the delegations arise in a sleeted SUV bristling with body guards. U.S. Military helicopters suddenly hover above the palace heralding the arrival of American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilizad. He's been trying to serve as an intermediary in the talks.

This week's talks focused on security issues. The Sunni delegates are demanding a greater say in the running of the country's interior ministry. The ministry is now controlled by the Shiites. It's been accused of fielding death squads responsible for many of the sectarian killings that have racked Baghdad in recent weeks. The Sunnis want one of their own to be named deputy prime minister to oversee security matters. And Sunni Spokesman Dafur Aoni(ph) says if the proposal is not accepted, there can be no national unity government.

Mr. DAFUR AONI (Sunni Spokesman): (Through Translator): We do not accept to be imprisoned by others in a couple ministerial posts so they can say that this is a government of national unity where the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds participate. The deputy prime minister shouldn't just be a decoration. They should have the authority to help the prime minister in administering the government.

TARABAY: Underlying the negotiations here is the still unresolved dispute over who will lead the new government. Aoni says the Sunni factions remain firmly opposed to the Shiite Alliance's nomination of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is head of the interim government for the past 10 months.

Mr. AONI (Through Translator): We want someone who can unite Iraqis and be able to execute government policy. I think Dr. Jaafari doesn't possess these qualifications. There are actually voices within the Shiite Alliance who agree with us.

TARABAY: The Kurds also want Jaafari replaced. Kurdish Planning Minister Barhem Saleh says it's a problem that's still on the table and still untouched even though they're seeing progress elsewhere.

Mr. BARHEM SALEH (Kurdish Planning Minister): At least they'll have to resolve the issue of the prime minister. And I think within the next few days this will come to a head and we will have to make some decisions.

TARABAY: For the Shiite Alliance, the attempt to remove Jaafari is a great insult.

Jalal Alamaliki(ph) is the Alliance's spokesman. After Friday's talks he stood out on the balcony furiously twirling his amber worry beads.

Mr. JALAL ALAMALIKI (Alliance Spokesman): (Through Translator): If this was before Dr. Jaafari was nominated, maybe it would've led to not voting for him. But after he was voted for and the street understood, it becomes an issue of us breaking our will. He is a respected national figure. He should not be insulted. And we will not allow this insult and the insult to the party he belongs to.

TARABAY: But Jaafari won the Alliance's nomination by just one vote. And some in the bloc are suggesting they compromised to move the process along. Alamaliki is also annoyed as what he sees as the continuing efforts of the Sunnis and Kurds to dilute the power of the Shiite majority. But no one is annoying the Shiites more these days than U.S. Ambassador Khalilizad. Shiite leaders accuse him of interfering in the talks and some are even demanding that he leave Iraq. Although U.S. officials deny it, Alamaliki says the Ambassador has joined the push to remove Jaafari.

Mr. ALAMALIKI: (Through Translator) The Shiite street believe the U.S. Ambassador is biased towards the Sunnis. We want the Sunnis and Shiites to be equal. Generally speaking, there are problems dealing with the U.S. Embassy.

TARABAY: On the streets of Baghdad, there is growing impatience with the slow pace of the political talks. Generator repairman Alad Najem(ph) says the delay in forming the new government is hurting the country and its people. He just wants the politicians to pick someone and be done with it.

ALAD NAJEM (Repairman): (Through Translator) I don't want Jaafari or anyone else. We don't care. We just need someone to solve the problem. Anyone, anyone who can keep peace and security to Iraqis.

TARABAY: Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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