U.S. Envoy to Iraq Says Talks With Iran Delayed

By Jonathan Finer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 10, 2006

BAGHDAD, April 9 -- With politicians deadlocked over who will be Iraq's next prime minister, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Sunday that planned talks with Iranian officials over Iraq-related issues would be delayed until a government is formed.

"We do not want to give the impression that the United States is sitting with Iran to decide about the Iraqi government. The Iraqis will decide that," Khalilzad said on "Fox News Sunday."

Khalilzad and other U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs by supporting militias and insurgent groups. Iran has denied such charges. Mutual agreement to hold talks here came last month, as international pressure intensified on Iran to terminate its nuclear program.

The completion of Iraq's new government could be weeks away. Efforts to form a cabinet representative of all Iraqi factions -- which U.S. officials have warned is essential to bringing calm to the country -- have stalled because of mounting opposition to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, who was nominated by the country's Shiite Muslim governing coalition to retain his post.

The Shiite alliance on Sunday named a three-member panel to gauge support for Jafari, in what some lawmakers described as a last-ditch effort to prevent the bloc from fracturing.

The panel -- made up of Jawad al-Maliki, from Jafari's Dawa party; Humam Hamoudi, from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; and Hussain Shahristani, an independent -- was tasked with surveying Sunni Arab and ethnic Kurdish political parties, which have refused to join a government led by Jafari. The Kurds said late Sunday that their rejection of Jafari was final.

Several Shiite leaders have also called on Jafari, who won the bloc's nomination by a single vote, to step aside. So far, he has refused.

The panel is expected to report its findings to the Shiite alliance Monday, which could then hold a new vote to choose a nominee or turn the question over to the new legislature. Adnan Pachachi, the interim parliamentary speaker, said Sunday that he would convene a session of the body in the coming days, which some lawmakers said signaled that an agreement could soon be reached.

Separately, Iraqi leaders condemned remarks made Saturday by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who said that the first loyalty of Iraq's Shiite majority was to Iran and that Iraq was mired in a civil war.

Jafari, who spent years in exile in Tehran, denied a civil war was underway and said Mubarak had taken a stab at Shiite "patriotism and civilization."

The Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, echoed Mubarak's comments at a news conference Sunday. "What is going on in Iraq is war and fighting between kith and kin, and an Arab initiative is expected in next Wednesday's meeting," he said on al-Arabiya television, referring to a meeting of countries neighboring Iraq.

And an Iraqi insurgent group released a video showing two German engineers who were abducted north of Baghdad in January pleading for their lives. In a previous footage aired in February, the group, Ansar al-Tawhid Wa-Sunna, had threatened to kill the men, Thomas Nitzschke and Rene Braeunlich. A written statement called the video "a last ultimatum," news services reported.

Also Sunday, Iraqis quietly marked the third anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. No large public gatherings were reported, and residents of Baghdad expressed mixed feelings about the milestone.

"Peoples are celebrating but also worried," said Saad Asad, 20, who has a fruit stand in the Karrada neighborhood. Three years ago in the same neighborhood, an iconic statue of the former dictator was toppled in Firdaus Square, an event that came to symbolize the fall of the government.

"They are celebrating because they got rid of Saddam, and worried because of all the car bombs and the violence and being without electricity and without jobs," he said.

Meanwhile, an Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that about 30 employees of an Iraqi-owned security company detained in a raid Saturday were being held on suspicion of involvement in armed attacks.

He said the ministry and U.S. forces, who assisted their Iraqi counterparts during the raid, had launched an investigation.

Special correspondent Saad Alizzi contributed to this report.

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