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U.S. plans for possible delay in Iraq withdrawal

With several major coalitions competing for power, U.S. officials said they are bracing for a prolonged period of political instability in Iraq after the elections. Many predicted a repeat of 2005, when it took Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki several months to form a government.

"How long this is going to take, this government formation, that is really the rub," Christopher R. Hill, U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, told the Council on Foreign Relations last week. "There's a good reason why people are worried."

But Hill said the United States needs to be mindful of its limited ability to affect the political situation in Iraq these days. "I'll tell you what our leverage is," he added. "Our leverage is not somehow threatening to withdraw troops or threatening to invade some boardroom with troops. Our leverage is to say: Iraq, if you want a good relationship with us -- a long-term relationship with us -- we need to make sure these elections are democratic."

A handful of violent incidents Monday highlighted how volatile the security situation remains just weeks before the parliamentary elections.

Near the northern city of Kirkuk, which is contested by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens, a Kurdish Iraqi army colonel was killed Monday, police said. Gunmen with automatic weapons ambushed Lt. Col Ali Ihasan east of the city, officials said.

Meanwhile, police said gunmen stormed a house in the southern outskirts of Baghdad and killed eight members of a family, including children. Some of the residents were beheaded, police said.

A spokesman for Ahmed Chalabi, the erstwhile U.S. ally and a candidate in the upcoming elections, said late Monday that the slaying targeted a man who had been active in the campaign. The spokesman, Entifadh Qanbar, also a candidate, identified the head of the family as Shahid Majeed Mayrosh and called him a "courageous activist" for the Iraqi National Alliance. Other Iraqi authorities declined to corroborate the assertion.

Iraqi and U.S. officials have reported a spike in rocket attacks targeting the Green Zone in Baghdad and American bases. U.S. officials said Shiite militia groups have stocked up on rockets and other weapons, which they say are smuggled from Iran.

American officials say it has become harder to understand the scope and dynamics of violence in Iraq now that the U.S. military has a small footprint in Iraqi cities.

"Is this the beginning of sectarian warfare, is it tribal, is it AQI?" a U.S. military official said, using the abbreviation for the Sunni insurgency group al-Qaeda in Iraq. "It's hard to know if these are localized killings for political reasons or violence to spread a blanket of fear so people don't go to the polls."

Correspondents Leila Fadel and Ernesto LondoƱo in Baghdad and staff writers Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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