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US said to oppose new term for Jaafari

BAGHDAD -- In an effort to break a deadlock in forming Iraq's new government, the Bush administration has notified the dominant Shi'ite Muslim alliance that it opposes the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for another term in office, a US official and Shi'ite politician said yesterday.

The message relayed from the White House by the US ambassador comes amid growing strain on relations between the United States and the Shi'ite bloc that leads Iraq's year-old interim administration. It is the most overt US bid thus far to engineer the choice of a less divisive leader for a four-year government.

Jaafari's nomination six weeks ago aroused fierce opposition from Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and secular parties represented in the parliament elected Dec. 15. US officials say the wrangling has frustrated Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's efforts to broker the formation of a unity government and has created a power vacuum in which sectarian violence is flourishing.

Jaafari, a religious scholar with close ties to Iran, has been widely criticized for failing to defeat the Sunni-led insurgency and for allowing Shi'ite sectarian militias to operate death squads within the police force. His tenure has seen a decline in oil production and a lag in reconstruction efforts.

On Saturday the ambassador delivered what he called a ''personal message" from President Bush to Abdulaziz Hakim, the Shi'ite alliance leader, and asked that it be relayed to the prime minister, according to an adviser to Hakim who was present at the meeting.

''The message from Bush is that the United States prefers a prime minister other than Dr. Jaafari -- a leader who is more acceptable to all political factions and who does not have an unsuccessful record in running the country," said the adviser, Ridha Jawad Takki.

A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that the ambassador had asked Hakim to seek the withdrawal of Jaafari's candidacy.

US Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Colton confirmed that Khalilzad met Saturday with Hakim, but said she was unaware of any message from the White House. She said it is not US policy to interfere in the choice of government officials here.

''This is an Iraqi decision," she said.

A Shi'ite politician close to the prime minister, Haider Abadi, said Jaafari was aware of the message but had not been formally notified.

''It is not a friendly message," Abadi said. ''The ambassador is creating an atmosphere of rejection against Dr. Jaafari by saying the United States cannot work with him. That only discourages the Sunnis and other political factions from being open to compromise."

In other developments:

Two dozen people were reported killed or found dead yesterday in sectarian violence. Police in Baghdad discovered the bodies of 17 men who had been handcuffed and shot in the head; most had been dumped under a bridge.

In the biggest wave of kidnappings in a month, masked gunmen stormed a currency exchange house and two electronics shops in Baghdad during a span of 30 minutes, dragged off 24 Iraqis, and stole tens of thousands of dollars in cash, police said.

A UN-affiliated agency said that sectarian violence has displaced more than 25,000 Iraqis since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi'ite Muslim shrine, and shelters and tent cities are springing up across central and southern Iraq to house homeless Sunni and Shi'ite families.

The flight is continuing, according to the International Organization for Migration, which works closely with the United Nations and other groups. The result has been a population exchange as Sunni and Shi'ite families flee mixed communities for the safety of areas where their own sects predominate.

Material from the Washington Post was included in this report.

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