Iraqis' haggling continues

Control of military, police is sticking point

May 17, 2006|By MEGAN K. STACK | MEGAN K. STACK,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi political parties have agreed on the distribution of most key ministries for a new government but are bickering over the country's security services, U.S. and Iraqi officials said yesterday.

Iraq's sharply divided sects and ethnic groups will be able to seat a government just in time to meet Monday's deadline, insiders said, but the two most sensitive ministry posts, at defense and interior, might not be filled when Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki unveils the Cabinet.

Control of the police and the military remains the sticking point. Violence yesterday was a reminder of the implications of those appointments.

At least 23 people were killed in a gunbattle and bombing at a parking lot in a mostly Shiite Muslim neighborhood in Baghdad, and there were killings in the capital and elsewhere. Among the victims were a Baghdad college dean and the coach of a popular soccer team in the southern city of Basra.

The Shiite Muslim political bloc appears poised to keep control of the Interior Ministry, but some U.S. officials and rival Iraqi groups demand that Shiites appoint an independent figure to lead the sensitive and powerful domestic forces.

"Security issues are the number one issue; these are the lead ministries in the government," said Basam Ridha, an official with the Shiite Dawa party. "If we aren't careful in designating a very strong person who can provide security, we won't be able to proceed with reconstruction or move forward."

U.S. and Iraqi officials say that seating a unity government is the key to quieting the sectarian violence and the extrajudicial killings by militias.

A U.S. diplomat said yesterday that al-Maliki is responsible for controlling the militias.

"The militias are attached directly to the political groups key to a unity government," the diplomat said in Baghdad. Al-Maliki "has the backing of the political leaderships that oversee the militias."

During the maneuvering to form a government, religious sects and ethnic groups are fighting to keep or win access to natural resources, cash and influence.

U.S. officials, who have been deeply involved in negotiations, are pushing for competent, nonsectarian people to lead the ministries. The prime minister and party leaders have been navigating between conflicting constituencies.

In the attacks in Baghdad, gunmen stormed the parking lot, surrounded by houses and a middle school, in broad daylight, gunning down at least five security guards. Before leaving, the attackers planted a homemade bomb.

"A car inside the parking lot exploded, tearing all those inside into pieces," Ahmad Hadi Karam, a 34-year-old tailor who rushed to the parking lot after the gunfire, said in a telephone interview. "Metal and flesh fragments and splinters were falling over me. I lost my hearing."

Elsewhere in Baghdad, gunmen fatally shot Abbas Ali Dahir Ani, dean of the college of economics and administration at Baghdad University, and two of his bodyguards. Four passengers in a small bus were killed in a separate shootout.

A roadside bomb in the middle-class Shiite neighborhood of Yousifiya killed four civilians, and gunmen went on a shooting rampage in the religiously mixed streets of Dora. Two more bodies turned up, including a torture-marked corpse with a bullet to the head in the Shiite slum Sadr City.

Iraqi police said American soldiers opened fire on a 16-year-old boy in Jaderiya, an insurgent stronghold south of Baghdad. He was taken to a hospital, where he died, police said. The U.S. military did not confirm or deny the incident.

Meanwhile, in the increasingly restive southern city of Basra, the coach of one of Iraq's most popular soccer teams was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. A group of men fired machine guns out of a sedan, killing Nazar Abed al-Zahra late Monday night, players on the Al-Mina team said.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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