Monday, April 10, 2006

U.S. delays talks with Iran until Iraq can participate

Jonathan Finer, Naseer Nouri, SFGate:
With politicians deadlocked over who will be Iraq's next prime minister, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Sunday that planned talks with Iranian officials over Iraq-related issues would be delayed until a government is formed.

"We do not want to give the impression that the United States is sitting with Iran to decide about the Iraqi government. The Iraqis will decide that," Khalilzad told Fox News Sunday.

Khalilzad and other U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs by supporting militias and insurgent groups. READ MORE

Iran has denied such charges. Mutual agreement to hold talks in Baghdad came last month, as international pressure intensified on Iran to end its nuclear program.

The completion of Iraq's new government could be weeks away. Efforts to form a Cabinet representative of all Iraqi factions -- which U.S. officials have warned is essential to bringing calm to the country -- have stalled amid mounting opposition to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who was nominated by Iraq's Shiite Muslim governing coalition to retain his post.

The Shiite alliance Sunday named a three-member panel to gauge support for al-Jaafari, in what some lawmakers described as a last-ditch effort to prevent the bloc from fracturing.

The panel -- made up of Jawad al-Maliki, from al-Jaafari's Dawa party; Humam Hamoudi, from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; and Hussain Shahristani, an independent -- was tasked with surveying Sunni Arab and ethnic Kurdish political parties, who have refused to join a government led by al-Jaafari. The Kurds said late Sunday that their rejection of al-Jaafari was final.

Several Shiite leaders have also called on al-Jaafari, who won the bloc's nomination by a single vote, to step aside. So far, he has refused.

The panel is expected to report its findings to the alliance today, which could then hold a new vote to choose a nominee or turn the question over to the new legislature. Adnan Pachachi, the interim parliamentary speaker, said Sunday that he would convene a session of the body in the coming days, which some lawmakers said signaled an agreement could soon be reached.

Separately, leaders condemned remarks made Saturday by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who said the first loyalty of Iraq's Shiite majority was to Iran and that Iraq was mired in a civil war.

Al-Jaafari, who spent years in exile in Tehran, denied a civil war was under way and said Mubarak had taken a stab at Shiite "patriotism and civilization."

Meanwhile, in a pre-dawn raid Sunday, clashes erupted when U.S. forces surrounded a suspected safe house and nearby tent on the northern outskirts of Baghdad. After being fired upon, troops gunned down five suspected insurgents, and three others were killed in an air strike.

Also Sunday, kidnappers threatened to kill two German engineers seized by gunmen in January in northern Iraq unless prisoners held by U.S. forces are freed. Thomas Nitzschke and Rene Braeunlich were shown in a video posted Sunday on the Web pleading for help. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government was "doing everything in our power to save the lives of the hostages."

The turmoil across this country stands in sharp contrast to the euphoria that swept many areas of Iraq when Saddam Hussein's government collapsed during the U.S.-led invasion three years ago. "Freedom Day" has been declared a national holiday, although the day was not celebrated in Fallujah and other parts of insurgent-impacted Anbar province.

In other news, the three-star Marine Corps general who was the military's top operations officer before the invasion of Iraq expressed regret, in an essay published Sunday, that he did not more energetically question those who had ordered the nation to war.

Retired Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold also called for replacing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and "many others unwilling to fundamentally change their approach." He is the third retired senior officer in recent weeks to demand that Rumsfeld step down.

In the essay, in this week's issue of Time magazine, Newbold wrote, "I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat -- al Qaeda."