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Shi'ites in Iraq may drive wedge between Kurds, Sunnis

BAGHDAD -- As an ongoing political deadlock continues over the formation of a new government, Shi'ite Muslim leaders have launched a new offensive in favor of embattled Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari by trying to drive a wedge between Kurds and Sunni Arabs who have opposed Jaafari winning a full term in office.

Jaafari and his supporters have suggested that Iraq's presidency could be awarded to a Sunni rather than a Kurd, sowing a potential rift between the two groups who, until now, have joined to fight Jaafari. In Iraq's interim government, the Shi'ites had received the prime minister post, Kurds the presidency, and a Sunni has served as speaker of the parliament.

As the political stalemate continued, at least 32 Iraqis and three US soldiers were killed yesterday amid the ongoing insurgency and sectarian violence.

North of Baqubah, a car bomb exploded near a Shi'ite mosque as people were leaving after evening prayers, killing at least 26 people and injuring 70 others, police said.

The Baqubah bombing is the latest in a series of attacks targeting the nation's majority Shi'ite population. On Friday, suicide bombers killed at least 80 people at a mosque in Baghdad. A day earlier, at least 10 people were killed near the Imam Ali mosque in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf.

Analysts say the attacks are meant to stir sectarian passions and hasten the country's drift toward all-out civil war. The Bush administration and others have urged that a new government be formed quickly to help stabilize the nation four months after the Iraqi parliamentary election.

Yesterday, acting parliament speaker Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni who is a former Iraqi foreign minister, said he has called on the parliament to convene Monday ''to preserve the credibility of the political process."

''The Iraqi people want to see the new government as soon as possible," said Pachachi. Setting a date ''will urge the officials and the politicians to double their efforts."

He added that there are ''encouraging indications that an agreement will be reached" before the session.

But the latest machinations appeared to be creating a new round of ill will, with the prospect of the presidency being handed to the Sunnis angering Kurdish politicians.

The US troops killed yesterday, targeted in separate roadside bombing attacks south and east of Baghdad, brought the total number of Americans killed this month to 34, more than the total during all of March, according to a count by the Associated Press.

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