BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Iraqi politicians struggled Saturday to agree on candidates for two key security posts that remained vacant a week after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government of national unity took office.
The political maneuvering came as Iran’s foreign minister visited the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, where he met with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was leading the second high-level visit by an Iranian delegation since Saddam Hussein was ousted, met with al-Maliki and other top Iraqi officials Friday, and he rejected a U.S. offer of direct talks on Iraq as Tehran hardened its position against international pressure to stop uranium enrichment.
Mottaki also got a boost from his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, who said Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear research — a stance that runs counter to U.S. efforts to force Tehran to stop all nuclear activities amid fears it is seeking to develop atomic weapons.
He avoided the nuclear issue after his talks with al-Sistani, however, instead praising the religious leader for his “remarkable” efforts to maintain unity among Iraqis.
“This visit is not a political visit,” he said after the meeting in Najaf. “I came to here to visit the holy shrines, the clerics and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.”
Al-Maliki said Thursday he soon could be ready to name the two men who will be charged with carrying out his pledge to take over security for Iraq within 18 months, but Friday passed without word of the appointments.
The main Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs in the 275-member parliament resumed talks on the candidates Saturday afternoon, hours after al-Maliki’s spokesman, Yassin Majid, said “probably this issue will be settled today.”
Prominent Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi, however, offered a less optimistic timeframe.
“We hope the agreement will be reached within two or three days,” he said at a press conference at his office in Baghdad. “I think that to linger and take some time in choosing the ministers is better than rushing into it.”
When asked about Mottaki’s warning on Friday that Iran would retaliate against any U.S. attack, Al-Dulaimi said Iraq would not allow its territory to be used “as a launching pad against any other country.”
Al-Maliki did not fill the top interior and defense posts when he formed his government May 20 because of ethnic and sectarian disagreements. He said problems included the large number of candidates presented by his Shiite United Iraqi Alliance and the Sunni Arabs’ Iraqi Accordance Front, and concerns about some nominees’ links to the former regime.
At least 21 people were killed and dozens wounded nationwide Saturday.
Gunmen in two cars killed four policemen and one civilian in Baqouba.
A bomb in a parked car exploded near a busy bus station in southern Baghdad, killing at least four civilians and wounding seven, police Capt. Jamil Hussein said.
Gunmen also broke into a gardening store in Baghdad and killed the Shiite owner, Ali Hussein Kadhin, police Lt. Maitham Abdul Razzaq said.
Both attacks occurred in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Dora and came a day after bombs hit three different outdoor markets in largely Shiite areas of the capital, killing at least 18 people and wounding more than 60.
The U.S. military said a Marine was killed Friday by “enemy action” in the volatile Anbar province.
The U.S. military also said six terror suspects were captured Friday in Ramadi, saying information from recent detainees led to the raid.
Residents in the volatile city 70 miles west of Baghdad complained they spent days without water or electricity amid recent clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents. Footage from AP Television News showed collapsed tin stalls and rubble as a fighter plane flew overhead and gunfire could be heard.
Deputies close to the negotiations on the defense and interior ministry posts had said it was doubtful a decision would be made by Saturday, although at least one Shiite appeared to be edging toward getting the interior minister portfolio — former National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, 57.
Hashim al-Taie, a Sunni legislator involved the negotiations, complained nominees had been rejected by the dominant parties because they were former Baath Party members.
“This issue became a thorny one,” he told The Associated Press. “We have not agreed on specific names and we hope that this issue is to be settled in today’s meeting.”
He said there were three candidates: two independents and a member of the National Accordance Front.
“They are all former army officers but were not Baath party members,” he said.