BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The main Sunni Arab political bloc is close to returning to suspended talks over the formation of a new government, the lead Sunni negotiator said yesterday. The step could help defuse the sectarian tensions that threatened to spiral into open civil war last week after the bombing of a Shiite shrine and the reprisal killings that followed.
That bloodletting has amounted to the worst sectarian violence since the American invasion nearly three years ago, and the threat of Iraqis killing each other on an even greater scale appears to have helped drive Sunni Arab politicians back to moderation, after they angrily withdrew from negotiations last Thursday. The Bush administration has pegged its hopes for dampening the Sunni-led insurgency and withdrawing some of the 130,000 American troops here on Sunni Arab participation in the political process.
While the Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Consensus Front, could still decide not to return to the talks, Iraqi officials say the talks may resume as early as this week, depending on the level of tension in the streets.
Sectarian violence appeared to be ebbing across Iraq yesterday, with more people venturing outside for the first time in days. Nonetheless, Shiite militiamen retained control of some Sunni mosques they had raided, and scattered mayhem left at least 14 people dead, including three American soldiers. At least 227 people have been killed since the shrine bombing.
The young spiritual leader of the Shiite militiamen, Muqtada al-Sadr, made his first appearance in Iraq since the paroxysm of violence. He arrived in the southern port city of Basra from a trip to Iran and in a rare public speech he called for unity between Shiites and Sunnis while demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces.
Blaming the American military for the recent violence, he told Iraqis to "cut off the head of the snake." Thousands of followers, some waving Kalashnikov rifles, cheered in the streets.
The return to talks of the Sunni Arab bloc would be a crucial step in keeping on track the formation of a permanent government, which was mired in troubled negotiations even before the attack last Wednesday. The Sunni negotiator, Mahmoud al-Mashhadany, said Sunni politicians now recognized the need to form a widely inclusive government as quickly as possible to succeed the current interim government, dominated by religious Shiites and Kurds.
"We've canceled our withdrawal from the talks," al-Mashhadany said in a telephone interview. "We should hurry up and form a national unity government, to change this hopeless government."
The Bush administration has been pressuring the majority Shiites and the Kurds to allow significant Sunni Arab representation in the upcoming four-year government, in hopes of politically engaging with the Sunni-led insurgency. The Sunni Arabs are severely underrepresented in the current government because they boycotted elections in January 2005.
The Sunni Arabs presented a list of 10 demands to the Shiite-dominated government, including repairing the damaged mosques and honoring the memory of Sunnis who were killed. On Saturday night, at an emergency meeting of political leaders, the Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said he was prepared to meet the demands.
Al-Mashhadany said yesterday that the Sunni Arabs would remain vigilant for any broken promises from the Shiites.
But he generally struck a conciliatory tone, saying, "There's a desire to accelerate the formation of the Cabinet. This is from the leadership of all the groups -- the Sunnis, the Shia and the Kurds."
In the last several days, Iraqi officials have put aside the negotiations to deal immediately with the sectarian violence. If the streets remain calm today, they say, that could prompt leaders to restart the talks. The Iraqi government announced that it would lift today an extraordinary daytime curfew it had imposed on Baghdad since Friday.
Attacks that took place yesterday were for the most part less intense than the recent violence. Eight mortar rounds landed near two Shiite mosques in the troubled Dora neighborhood in Baghdad, killing at least eight and wounding at least 32.
The American military said two soldiers were killed early yesterday in Baghdad by a roadside bomb. Another soldier died from small-arms fire in the evening.
No word emerged yesterday on the fate of Jill Carroll, the 28-year-old American journalist abducted in early January. Her captors issued a statement through a Kuwaiti television station this month demanding that the Americans and Iraqis release all imprisoned women by yesterday or Carroll would be killed.