Iraq Shiite mosque blast kills 26

Leaders fail to make progress towards forming unity gov’tBAGHDAD (Reuters) — A car bomb killed at least 26 people outside a Shiite mosque north of Baghdad on Wednesday as Iraqi leaders failed to make progress towards forming a national unity government they hope can avert sectarian civil war.

The explosion in the town of Howaydir was the latest in a wave of attacks against Iraq’s Shiite majority that Washington fears will push the country close to a full-scale communal conflict in the vacuum left by bickering politicians.

Some 70 people were wounded in the explosion, police said.

Fresh demands from the Shiite alliance over the creation of a government threatened to prolong the political paralysis.

Acting Parliament Speaker Adnan Pachachi said Iraqi leaders would discuss a national unity government at the next session on Monday and he was optimistic of a breakthrough before then in spite of the Shiite alliance’s reluctance to drop its choice of Ibrahim Jaafari for prime minister.

“I spoke to the heads of all the political blocs and I sensed a true intent from all to push the political process forward,” Pachachi said. “From now until the 17th of this month, we believe there will be an agreement on some of the problems.” Elections for the new government ended four months ago and the United States and Britain have been pressing Iraqi leaders to agree on who will lead it, fearful the widening vacuum emboldens insurgents trying to undermine the political process.

The car bomb in Howaydir exploded near a mosque and a crowded market, the kind of attack that US and Iraqi officials say is part of a campaign by Al Qaeda leader Abu Mussab Zarqawi to draw Shiites into civil war with Arab Sunnis.

Hospital officials said casualty tolls were expected to rise as ambulances were still rushing in with victims. Last week, a triple suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad killed up to 90 people.

Insurgents also pressed ahead with a systematic campaign of assassinations designed to undermine efforts to build a state in postwar Iraq.

Gunmen killed three policemen west of Mosul and in a separate attack a policeman was gunned down in the city.

American military officials say Zarqawi has shifted his tactics, attacking Iraqi army and security forces instead of US troops while continuing his bombings against civilians.

US military deaths in the Iraq war declined for a fifth straight month in March while insurgent attacks, aimed increasingly at Iraqis, continued unabated. But rebels have killed eight US soldiers since Sunday in a series of incidents, including one struck by a roadside bomb on Wednesday.

The United States hopes the political process will defuse the insurgency and enable US soldiers to start heading home and has told Iraqi leaders its patience is running out.

Drop Jaafari

Much depends on whether the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) can drop Jaafari as its candidate for prime minister without splitting the bloc apart.

Kurdish and Arab Sunni leaders have told the alliance that they flatly reject Jaafari as a nominee. The alliance held talks on Wednesday and was expected to meet again but no breakthrough was expected, alliance sources said.

Before parliament can vote on a replacement for Jaafari, the speaker of the house and his two deputies must be elected, followed by a vote for a three-man presidential council, which then has to unanimously choose a prime minister.

The prime minister then has one month to name his Cabinet and put it to parliament for approval.

Alliance leaders insist that a parliament speaker, the prime minister and the president are agreed on by all parties before the bloc goes to parliament, sources in the bloc said.

“We prefer to have it all as one package, one deal, before going to the parliament so at least now we should accelerate the negotiations and meetings,” said Alliance official Reda Jawad Taki, an official in the powerful Shiite Islamist party SCIRI.

As Iraqi leaders struggled to break the stalemate, former president Saddam Hussein was doing his best to outwit the court convened to try him for crimes against humanity in the killing of 148 Shiites in the 1980s.

During a brief session on Wednesday with no defendants, Chief Judge Raouf Abdel Rahman said Saddam and his half-brother Barzan Tikriti refused to provide the court with samples of their signatures.

Arab meeting boycott

The Shiite-dominated Baghdad government boycotted an Arab foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo on Wednesday to protest against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s remark last week that Shiites in Arab countries were more loyal to Shiite Iran.

Mubarak said civil war had already started in Iraq, where fresh violence on Wednesday reminded Iraqi politicians that they will face an enormous task in tackling insurgent bombings, kidnappings and death squads once a government is formed.

A policeman and three civilians were killed and four people wounded when a roadside bomb struck a police patrol car in central Baghdad, police said. In what has a become a routine event, police said they found the bodies of three men in different areas of the capital.

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