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Turf battles in Iraq delay government's formation

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They've met daily for weeks, made noises about creating a coalition government designed to reduce sectarian distrust, and even been threatened by the US with withholding of aid.

Even so, Iraqi politicians are no closer to compromise or agreement on a government than they were when parliamentary elections were held more than two months ago.

For now, this leaves a lame-duck government in place. The US is pressing hard - particularly to limit the rising influence of Shiite political parties with ties to Iran. But Iraq's ethnic and sectarian factions seem to be digging in over mutually exclusive positions, even as their rhetoric against their opponents intensifies.

"We would work with anyone committed to the unity of Iraq, the stability of Iraq, and the freedom of Iraq,'' says Saleh Mutlaq, a leader of the Sunni Arab coalition that won 20 percent of the parliamentary seats. "The problem is, not everyone in the parliament agrees to these principles."

Mr. Mutlaq, who says the Dec. 15 election was rigged against Sunni Arabs by the current Shiite-led government and wants the constitution scrapped, said negotiations have convinced him that "forming a government soon is not a real possibility."

Iraq's Shiite parties won 47 percent of seats, while two large Sunni Arab groups took 20 percent. The Kurdish coalition took 19 percent and a secular party led by US favorite Iyad Allawi won 9 percent.

While the Shiites would seem to be in the driver's seat, and have nominated current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to remain, he is unpopular with the US because of his Islamist politics and ties to Iran.

US officials have mooted the possibility that a coalition of secular politicians led by Mr. Allawi could be formed to deny the Shiites control, perhaps by exploiting splits within the Shiite coalition. But Mutlaq and other Sunni leaders make it clear that while they don't trust the Shiites, whom they blame for targeted sectarian killings, they have little in common with the Kurds, who favor independence and are interested in control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

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