Iraqi biggest Sunni bloc commits to coalition talks

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Iraq’s biggest Sunni political bloc committed itself on Sunday to talks with Shiites and Kurds to form a government of national unity, but said its key demands, including changes to the constitution, must be met.
The United States, keen to drive the political process towards a stable consensus, wants the Kurds and majority Shiites, who dominated last month’s elections, to form a government that includes minority Sunnis. It hopes an inclusive coalition will undermine the raging Sunni Arab insurgency.

Four policemen were killed and nine wounded by a roadside bomb in Baqouba, 65 km north of Baghdad. Thirteen other people were killed in attacks across Iraq, including a policeman’s four nephews who died when a rocket hit his home.

The Iraqi Accordance Front, which comprises three mainly Islamist Sunni Arab groups, said it would appeal against the results of an election it believes was rigged but would still take part in talks on a new coalition government.

“It will be active in talks with other political blocs to form a unity government,” said Tareq Hashemi, whose moderate Iraqi Islamic Party is the biggest member of the front.

Hashemi said the election results did “not reflect the political and population weight” of the front, which believes it should have won 11 more seats. The Sunni coalition would seek key ministries in the new government as compensation, he said.

The Front also intends to hold Shiites and Kurds to a promise, extracted under US pressure, of reviewing the constitution approved in a referendum last October.

Many Sunnis fear the constitution’s provisions for regional autonomy will give Kurds and Shiites control over Iraq’s vast oil reserves and eventually break the country apart.

“We ask the blocs not to put obstacles in the way of making some changes to the constitution,” Hashemi told a news briefing.

After boycotting parliament last year, Sunni leaders had hoped a big turnout in the December 15 election would put them in a strong position to press for amendments, particularly on a new federal state structure, which they fear could give control of oil to Kurdish and Shiite regions in the north and south.

They had also hoped that other Shiite and secular groups opposed to decentralisation would undermine the dominance of the main Shiite bloc, the Islamist Alliance, whose most powerful leaders are strongly in favour of federal autonomy.

But the success of the Alliance in coming close to retaining its majority may dampen Sunni hopes of securing amendments with the help of anti-federalist Shiites in parliament. A Western diplomat closely involved in Iraq’s political process said Sunni ambitions may have to focus now more on influencing legislation to be enacted that will spell out exactly how autonomous regions can be established and operate.

As US and Iraqi forces hunted for kidnapped American reporter Jill Carroll, Iraq’s Justice Ministry said six Women Prisoners held by US forces would be released within a week.

Carroll’s abductors threatened to kill her if all women prisoners in Iraq were not freed.

A joint Iraqi-US review board approved the release of the women on January 17, before the kidnappers made their demand, but US officials then apparently delayed freeing them so that it did not look like they were giving in to the hostage-takers.

“They delayed their release because of the connection with the kidnapping of the American journalist,” a justice ministry spokesman said.

Iraqi military officials said they had intelligence indicating Abu Mussab Zarqawi, the militant leader behind some of the bloodiest attacks, is in Diyala province near Baghdad.

It is not the first time Iraqi officials have said they have closed in on the elusive Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Army posts have been notified of Zarqawi’s presence in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, where there has been a surge in violence in the past few months, the officials said. It was not known exactly where in the province he was, one official said.

Saddam Hussein may be confronted from the witness stand by former associates when his trial resumes this week but defence counsel will call for a halt after the chief judge resigned complaining of government interference.

“There will be former regime members” among witnesses appearing on several days of hearings starting on Tuesday and lasting up to three weeks, a Western diplomat closely involved in the US-sponsored trial told reporters on Sunday.

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