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Officials Hopeful on Iraqi Cabinet
Announcement May Beat Deadline; Attack Kills at Least 20

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

BAGHDAD, May 16 -- U.S. and Iraqi officials said Tuesday that Iraq's prime minister-designate was likely to reveal the composition of his cabinet ahead of a Monday deadline, a step they hope will allow the new government to begin seriously addressing the country's problems.

Violence flared in several parts of Iraq on Tuesday, with the deadliest attack unfolding at a bus station parking lot and marketplace in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad. Gunmen first shot several people, then detonated a car bomb next to an oil tanker, triggering a massive explosion. At least 20 people were killed, police and witnesses said.

U.S. military authorities said that two soldiers, both from the 3rd Brigade Heavy Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, were killed in Balad, 50 miles north of the capital, when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb on Monday. A bomb explosion at Rasheed airport in southern Baghdad killed another soldier.

Heavy fighting continued in the western city of Ramadi, where U.S. troops engaged in intense, close-quarters combat with a large force of insurgents, killing several with gunfire and artillery strikes, according to residents of the area.

Late Tuesday, police said a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates was kidnapped in Baghdad, news services reported. The Reuters news agency quoted police sources who said gunmen broke into the house where the diplomat, Naji al-Noaimi, was staying and abducted him. They gave no further details.

U.S. and Iraqi officials argue that the key to stopping the violence is a new government that unites Iraq's rival Shiite, Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular parties. But in the months since the Dec. 15 national elections, the results were contested and the dominant Shiite coalition's pick for prime minister was forced to withdraw after strident opposition from every other group.

On April 22, the parliament approved the Shiites' second pick for prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and gave him 30 days to assemble a cabinet. Since then, the parties have fallen to arguing again, particularly over the vital ministries of interior and defense, which control the police and army.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials said Tuesday that there had been great progress in past days. A U.S. official who gave a background briefing to reporters on the condition that he not be named said Maliki would probably meet Monday's deadline, and a Sunni politician said a decision could come in "the next 48 hours."

"The government is in its final form now. Maliki will absolutely meet the constitutional deadline and will announce the government before it," Dhafir al-Ani, the Sunni politician, told Reuters. "Nobody wants him to fail. Even those who oppose the political process will not put up obstacles."

Salah Abdulrazzak, a spokesman for Maliki, said that "the process of forming a government is almost done, with the names of candidates ready, including four women."

The U.S. official attributed the slowness of the political progress to inexperience -- a broad-based government is "something they have never had before," the official said -- and to negotiations made more tricky by efforts to include Sunni Arab and secular parties.

What would happen if Maliki does not meet the deadline is not clear. The constitution calls for another candidate to be selected for prime minister. A Sunni politician said this week that the second-largest political grouping in parliament would have the power to select the prime minister, but the U.S. official said politicians could simply renominate Maliki and give him another 30 days. But he doubted that would happen.

"My own sense is that as the deadline draws nearer, minds get focused and people push the deal to a conclusion," the U.S. official said.

While politicians continued their discussions, the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants in the killing of 148 Shiites resumed with the former Iraqi president absent from the courtroom.

As the defense team presented witnesses to vouch for the character and whereabouts of three of the co-defendants -- Mohammed Azawi Ali, Abdullah Kadhim al-Ruweid and his son, Abdullah Mizher al-Ruweid -- they repeatedly referred to Hussein as the president of Iraq, a title Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman had pointedly denied Hussein on Monday.

Eventually, Abdel-Rahman warned the witnesses and the defense attorneys not to refer to Hussein as "Mr. President," but as defendant Saddam Hussein. When a defense lawyer from Qatar, Najeeb Nauimi, insisted on calling him by that title, Abdel-Rahman asked: "Did you come all the way from Qatar to tell us that? Right now he is defendant Saddam Hussein, but if tomorrow he becomes a president, you may call him Mr. President, and I will call him that, too."

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Omar Fekeiki, Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.

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