BAGHDAD, Feb. 5 -- The leading Shiite candidate to become Iraq's next prime minister welcomed overtures on Saturday by groups that boycotted national elections and declared that he and others were willing to offer "the maximum" to bring those largely Sunni Arab groups into the drafting of the constitution and participation in the new government.
But Adel Abdel-Mehdi, the current finance minister and a powerful figure in the coalition expected to dominate Iraq's parliament, rejected a key demand of those groups -- a timetable for a withdrawal of the 150,000 U.S. troops in the country.
Shiites at a Baghdad mosque celebrate last week's elections, seen by many Iraqis as a success, even though results are not yet known.
(Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
"We are hearing some positive remarks coming from their side. That's very good. We are encouraging them," he said in an interview. "We are really willing to offer the maximum. . . . It's a balanced view -- from them, from us -- to see what the future has."
The conciliatory remarks came during one of the bloodiest days since Sunday's elections, with a spate of drive-by shootings, roadside mine explosions, clashes and kidnappings. Two American soldiers were killed by a mine explosion Friday night in Baiji, about 120 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Saturday. In the worst reported bloodshed, an insurgent group posted video footage on its Web site showing the slaying of seven members of the Iraqi National Guard, a pillar of the country's fledgling security forces.
But Abdel-Mehdi's comments were the latest to suggest a departure from the escalating political tension, much of it assuming a sectarian cast, that mirrored the insurgency and preceded Iraq's parliamentary elections. Many Sunni Arabs stayed away from the polls, crystallizing the divide between groups that engaged in the U.S.-backed process and those opposed to it while U.S. troops occupy the country.
Beginning this week, however, influential figures among Sunni and anti-occupation factions signaled their willingness to take part in the process that has followed the election, a recognition by some that the vote may have created a new dynamic. The Association of Muslim Scholars, one of the most powerful groups, has said it would abide by the results of the ballot, even if it viewed the government as lacking legitimacy. Thirteen parties, including a representative of the association and other parties that boycotted the vote, agreed Thursday to take part in the drafting of the constitution, which will be the parliament's main task.
"We should respect the choice of the Iraqi people," said Tariq Hashemi, the secretary general of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party, which withdrew from the election but which was still listed on the ballot.
The "drafting of the constitution is a very important issue for all Iraqis, and we have to be very clear on that," Hashemi said at a news conference Saturday. "We will have a role, we will play a role. That role depends on the political circumstances."
Iraqi election officials said Saturday that the vote count for the 275-member National Assembly would be completed by Thursday. So far, a coalition dominated by Shiite Muslim parties and candidates, and backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has emerged as the clear front-runner, winning about two-thirds of the 3.3 million votes counted so far. The list headed by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who fashioned himself as a secular alternative, had about 579,700 votes, or about 18 percent.
Those returns are largely from southern Iraq, where Shiites are the overwhelming majority. Kurdish officials say they are confident that they will emerge as the second-most powerful faction once votes are counted from the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.
Even before the official tallies, though, groups have begun making public their demands ahead of negotiations that could drag on for weeks over the composition of the new government. The National Assembly will choose a president and two deputy presidents who will appoint a prime minister and a cabinet. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading party in the Shiite coalition, has said it wants Abdel-Mehdi as the prime minister, although there are other contenders.
The leaders of the two main Kurdish political parties met Thursday in Salahuddin, the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in northern Iraq. They agreed that Jalal Talabani, the leader of one of the parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, would be their candidate for the post of president, officials who attended the meeting said.
The prospect of a Kurdish president in a largely Arab country would mark one of the most dramatic statements of the changing political landscape of Iraq, where the Sunni Arab minority has dominated politics since the country's creation in 1920.
In all likelihood, Sunni Arab voices and representatives of the leading anti-occupation groups will be severely overshadowed in the assembly by the Kurdish and avowedly religious parties drawn from the Shiite majority. As a result, Iraqi leaders across the political spectrum see the incorporation of Sunnis as a key test of the government's ability to reconcile a country badly fractured by dictatorship, war, violence under the U.S. occupation and the growing sectarian and ethnic cast to Iraq's politics.