BAGHDAD - Despite intense US pressure, Iraqi leaders failed yesterday to resolve differences over how to govern the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a dispute that is blocking provincial elections and stoking tension in the volatile north.
Also yesterday, a truck bomb exploded in a Sunni area of northern Baghdad, killing 12 people, wounding 23 and raising concern about a revival of sectarian conflict.
Parliament had called a special session to try to reach agreement on a bill authorizing elections in all 18 Iraqi provinces - a move the United States considers essential to reconciling Iraq's rival ethnic and religious communities.
But the session never convened because intensive talks among party and legislative leaders were unable to produce agreement on a formula that would satisfy Arab, Kurdish, and Turkoman demands for governing Kirkuk.
Kurds consider Kirkuk their traditional capital and want to incorporate it into their self-ruled region of the north. Arabs and Turkomen want the city to remain under central government control.
Last month, parliament approved an election bill after Kurdish lawmakers walked out in protest. But President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, rejected the bill and sent it back to parliament.
With the elections bill held hostage over Kirkuk, US officials have been stepping up pressure on the Kurds and other groups to resolve their differences so the provincial balloting can take place this year.
US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and UN special representative Staffan de Mistura met late yesterday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top leaders to try to hammer out an agreement that could be submitted to parliament.
President Bush phoned the Sunni parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani and Shi'ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi to urge a resolution, according to statements yesterday from their offices.
"President Bush has been working with the Iraqis to encourage them to work out their differences and get the provincial elections law passed," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.
The United Nations has recommended postponing provincial elections in Kirkuk and surrounding Tamim province while allowing the vote to proceed in Iraq's other 17 provinces. A committee would make recommendations on how to govern Kirkuk by the end of the year.
A senior parliamentary official said lawmakers were leaning toward approving the UN proposal, but Sunni Arabs and Turkomen were seeking international guarantees. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
The issue of Kirkuk, the center of Iraq's vast northern oil fields, has emerged as a litmus test for the ability of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian leaders to compromise on critical issues in the interest of national reconciliation.
The Kurds control the current provincial council, which would be up for re-election in a new ballot. Arabs and Turkomen have called for a quota system for council seats to guarantee representation of all communities - a demand the Kurds reject.
Issues such as Kirkuk underscore US fears that the improved security in Iraq is fragile.