BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Pressure mounted Sunday on Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to give up his bid for a new term amid anger over a recent surge of sectarian killings that has complicated already snarled negotiations on a new Iraqi government.
The delay in forming a government has prevented parliament from meeting since it was elected Dec. 15. But Kurdish and some Shiite officials said Sunday it should be ready to convene within days.
The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, denied involvement in fighting in a Sunni mosque in west Baghdad that killed three people Sunday. Police had reported that commandos from the Shiite-led Interior Ministry stormed the mosque, leading to a 25 minute gunbattle.
“There is no indication in our records that Interior Ministry’s police commandos carried out the raid. The claims are not true,” said Interior Ministry Maj. Falah al-Mohamadawi.
Police initially reported the mosque’s imam had been killed, but he was not hurt. Seven people were injured.
U.S. officials say a unity government that includes all Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities is essential for stabilizing the country and allowing U.S. and other coalition forces to start pulling out in the summer.
As the largest bloc in parliament, the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance gets the first chance to form a government, but it does not have sufficient seats to do so on its own.
Sunni, Kurdish and some secular parties are now pressing the Shiite Alliance to withdraw their nomination of al-Jaafari for a new term. He has served as prime minister in the transitional government that took power in April.
The Sunni Arab minority blames the prime minister for failing to control Shiite militiamen who attacked Sunni mosques and clerics after the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the central city of Samarra. More than 500 people were killed in the violence that followed, according to police and hospital accounts.
Khalaf al-Olayan, a leader of the main Sunni bloc, said Iraq has gone from “bad to worse.”
“Al-Jaafari’s government failed to solve the chaos that followed the Samarra explosions and did not take any measures to solve the security crisis that could have pushed the country into civil war,” he said in comments posted on the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front Web site.
Kurds are angry because they believe al-Jaafari is holding up a resolution to their claims to control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
“If al-Jaafari tries to form a government, he will not get any kind of cooperation,” said Mahmoud Othman, a leading figure in parliament’s Kurdish bloc.
President Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd, entered the fray Saturday, saying the Shiite Alliance should choose another candidate for the sake of consensus.
“I want to be clear, it is not against Dr. al-Jaafari as a person. He has been my friend for 25 years,” Talabani told reporters.
The Shiite Alliance itself is divided about who should be prime minister: al-Jaafari won the nomination by a single vote at a Feb. 12 Shiite caucus. Some members are troubled by al-Jaafari’s ties to radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose support was key in defeating Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the choice of powerful Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.
Al-Sadr and al-Hakim, who both have powerful militias behind them, are frequently at odds politically.
In a bid for support, two lawmakers from al-Jaafari’s Dawa Party visited the Shiite holy city of Najaf Saturday to seek the endorsement of Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They hinted al-Sistani approved of their candidate. But a senior al-Sistani aide, speaking on condition of anonymity Sunday because of the sensitivity of the dispute, said the spiritual leader had indirectly suggested al-Jaafari should step aside.
On Sunday, Kurdish leaders met al-Sistani, headed by Planning Minister Barham Saleh, a member of Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Talabani said Saturday he hoped to announce soon a date for parliament to convene.
Othman, the Kurdish official, said he expected a presidential decree to be issued Sunday summoning parliament to meet Thursday or Saturday. Haitham al-Husseini, an al-Hakim spokesman, also said lawmakers would likely convene in the next few days.
The political turmoil has created a dangerous leadership vacuum as security forces try to contain the violence unleashed by the destruction of the golden domed Askariya shrine in Samarra.
South of the capital, a policeman was killed and his son injured in a drive-by shooting in the mainly Sunni town of Musayyib. Police found two more bullet-riddled bodies, with hand and legs bound, in Kazimiyah, a northern Shiite suburb of Baghdad.