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5 in US forces killed; Shi'ite clans vie over leadership

Rivalry snarls efforts to select prime minister

BAGHDAD -- The US military announced the death of five American service members, including three killed yesterday north of Baghdad in a roadside bombing.

Another soldier assigned to the 2/28th Brigade Combat Team died Monday of wounds suffered the day before in fighting in Anbar Province west of the capital, the military said. Another soldier assigned to the 130th Engineer Brigade was killed Sunday when his vehicle was hit by a blast near Balad. Another service member was wounded.

The military did not identify those who died. The latest casualties raised the US death toll for this month to at least 31 -- the same for all of March, according to an Associated Press count. At least 2,359 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the war in 2003.

The deaths were reported as the bitter rivalry between two powerful clans for leadership of Iraq's Shi'ite Muslims snarled efforts to agree on the next prime minister, the key issue that is blocking a national unity government. Neither side showed any sign of compromise over Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leaving negotiations deadlocked four months after elections for a new parliament that the Bush administration hopes can improve stability and lessen the need for US troops.

At least 23 Iraqis died in violence yesterday. A car bombing killed five people, and three others died when a bomb exploded on a minibus, both attacks in Shi'ite areas of the capital, police said.

Police also found the bodies of 24 people -- apparent victims of sectarian death squads. Most of the bodies were found in Baghdad, but it was unclear when they died, police said.

Sunni Arabs and Kurds, whom the Shi'ites need as coalition partners in parliament, blame Jaafari, a Shi'ite, for the rise in sectarian violence bloodying Iraq. They are demanding that he be replaced before they agree to join a new government.

Jaafari has repeatedly refused to step aside. His Dawa party and his key backer, radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, remained firm in their support for him during a meeting of the seven factions in the Shi'ite alliance yesterday.

Behind the scenes, Jaafari's bid to remain prime minister is opposed by the biggest Shi'ite party, which is led by a member of a family that has competed for decades with Sadr's clan to lead Shi'ites.

Shi'ite negotiators planned to meet again today, but officials said there was no hint an agreement was near.

Jaafari barely won nomination during a vote in February among Shi'ite lawmakers, who are the largest bloc in parliament.

Shi'ite officials said his supporters fear removing him would bolster the position of the biggest Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.

SCIRI is led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose family has long been a rival of Sadr's clan for leadership of the Shi'ite community, which constitutes an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million people.

Sadr was credited with engineering Jaafari's nomination victory in February, which he won by a single vote over Hakim's candidate, Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Jaafari's supporters want assurances that if the prime minister steps aside, he will not be replaced by Abdul-Mahdi or someone else from Hakim's party, Shi'ite officials said.

''There are long-running tensions between SCIRI and the Sadrists," said Khalid al-Attiyah, an independent Shi'ite politician. ''There have been problems between them before. This generates a state of mutual mistrust."

The rivalry between Hakim's family and the Sadr clan goes back decades, when they began competing for power in Najaf, the seat of the Shi'ite religious leadership. Both families claim descent from the Prophet Mohammed and have produced distinguished figures.

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