Shiites hold coalition talks with Kurds; mass grave uncovered
BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Shiite religious bloc leading Iraq’s parliamentary elections held talks Tuesday with Kurdish leaders about who should get the top 12 government jobs, as thousands of Sunni Arabs and secular Shiites protested what they say was a tainted vote.Meanwhile, workers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala uncovered remains believed to be part of a mass grave dating to a 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein.The talks between the majority Shiites and the Kurds were seen as part of an effort to force the main Sunni Arab organizations to come to the bargaining table. All groups have begun jockeying, and the protests are widely considered to be part of an attempt by Sunni Arabs to maximize their negotiating position.The discussions come at a critical time for Iraq, with the United States placing high hopes on forming a broad-based coalition government that will provide the fledgling democracy with the stability and security it needs to allow American troops to begin returning home.Sunni Arabs formed the backbone of Saddam’s government, and the Bush administration hopes to pull them away from the insurgency that has ravaged the country with daily bloodshed.Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shiite religious coalition dominating the current government, traveled to the northern Kurdish city of Irbil for the meeting with Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region.”Today, we held preliminary consultations,” al-Hakim said at a joint news conference with Barzani. “All the details need to be studied and we need to evaluate the previous alliance and study its weaknesses and strengths. Then we will try to include the others.”A Kurdish coalition that includes Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party and President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is now the junior partner in a government led by al-Hakim’s United Iraqi Alliance.Preliminary results from the Dec. 15 vote have given the United Iraqi Alliance a big lead, but one unlikely to allow it to govern without forming a coalition with other groups.Final results are expected early next month, but the Shiite religious bloc may win about 130 seats in the 275-member parliament – short of the 184 seats needed to avoid a coalition with other parties.The Kurds could get about 55, the main Sunni Arab groups about 50 and the secular bloc headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite, about 25.”Our goal is to have a partnership government that enjoys a wide base of support,” al-Hakim said.Asked about claims by Sunni Arab groups and secular Shiites that the Dec. 15 poll was tainted by fraud, al-Hakim said “we have agreed on this with our brothers in the Kurdish coalition. It is impossible to annul the elections results or to hold new elections. We don’t accept this.”More than 10,000 people, some carrying photos of Allawi, demonstrated in central Baghdad in favor of a government that would give more power to Sunni Arabs and secular Shiites. Marchers chanted “No Sunnis, no Shiites, yes for national unity!”They are demanding that an international body review more than 1,500 complaints, warning they may boycott the new legislature. They also want new elections in some provinces, including Baghdad.Two Sunni Arab groups and Allawi’s Iraqi National List have threatened a wave of protests and civil disobedience if fraud charges are not properly investigated.But the United Nations has rejected an outside review, and al-Hakim said his bloc and the Kurds also were against it.The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq considers 35 of the complaints serious enough to change some local results. It said it began audits Tuesday of ballot boxes taken from about 7,000 polling stations in Baghdad province.”This audit is not a random sampling of boxes or a re-count. It is a targeted review of specific ballot boxes taken from about 7,000 polling stations the IECI opened across Baghdad,” the commission said, adding it was “in keeping with the IECI’s policy of taking all complaints seriously and of conducting exhaustive investigations where warranted.”Meanwhile, the American military said two U.S. pilots died in a helicopter accident in western Baghdad on Monday night. The accident was under investigation; the military said no hostile fire was involved. At least 2,172 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, municipal workers doing maintenance work uncovered remains that police believed were part of a mass grave thought to date back to 1991, when Saddam’s regime put down a Shiite uprising in the south.The remains – discovered Monday – were sent for testing Tuesday in an effort to identify the bodies, said Rahman Mashawy, a Karbala police spokesman. He did not say how many bodies were found, and the police claim could not be independently verified.Human rights organizations estimate that more than 300,000 people, mainly Kurds and Shiite Muslims, were killed and buried in mass graves during Saddam’s reign, which ended when U.S.-led forces toppled his regime in 2003. Saddam and seven co-defendants are now on trial for the deaths of more than 140 Shiites after a 1982 attempt on Saddam’s life in the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad.Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., visiting Iraq on Tuesday, said he met with the chief judge overseeing Saddam’s trial. Specter said he was disappointed in how the court has allowed the former leader “to dominate” the trial.”You have a butcher who has butchered his own people, a torturer who has tortured his own people,” Specter said. “The evidence ought to be presented in a systematic way, which would show that there’s been quite an accomplishment in taking (Saddam) out as opposed to letting him be a bluster-bun and control the proceedings.”Specter also said a U.S. general told him that recently announced U.S. troop reductions had been in the works since April and that more are on the way.—Associated Press reporters Mariam Fam, Jason Straziuso in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Irbil contributed to this report.