Showdown looms over role of religion in Iraq

Ayad Allawi, the secular interim prime minister, said Wednesday he's putting together a coalition to try to hold onto the job in the next government and block the candidate of the dominant Shiite political alliance. Kurdish parties also weighed in with demands for top posts, setting up a possible showdown over the role of religion in a new Iraq.

Allawi's call for an inclusive coalition that would attract minority Sunni Arabs who form the core of the insurgency came as support for Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leading Shiite candidate, began slipping in his United Iraq Alliance.

One day after al-Jaafari, 58, was nominated for the post of prime minister by the clergy-backed alliance, a Shiite political group that supports his one-time challenger, Ahmad Chalabi, threatened to withdraw its support.

The Shiite Political Council demanded that the alliance make amends after forcing Chalabi to end his pursuit of the prime minister's post by nominating one of the council's members for the largely ceremonial post of Iraqi president.

But the Kurdish coalition controlling 75 of the 275 seats in the National Assembly has long taken for granted that the alliance, which has 140 seats, will give the presidency to one of their leaders - Jalal Talabani.

``Regarding the nomination for the presidential post, no names were presented officially and we are running nonofficial discussions with all parties, especially with the Kurdish officials here in Baghdad,'' al-Jaafari spokesman Abdul Razaq Al-Kadhimi said.

The Kurds also issued a separate list of demands that include reinforcing autonomy in their northern provinces.

A two-thirds majority of the assembly is required for approval of the presidency - the first step in a complicated process of filling the top positions. What this boils down to is that for al-Jaafari to become prime minister, he must win the approval of his own Shiite alliance, including Chalabi's supporters, and an additional 44 legislators.

Much is at stake.

The next prime minister will oversee the drafting of a new constitution, and some fear al-Jaafari could lead Iraq toward an Islamic theocracy, or even a strictly sectarian Shiite one. Allawi, Chalabi and the Kurds oppose efforts to codify or legislate religion.

Allawi, whose ticket won 40 seats in the assembly, said he considered al-Jaafari an ``honorable man.'' But when asked if he feared that the alliance could impose Islamic rule in Iraq, Allawi said he opposed the creation of any form of Islamic government.

``We are liberal powers and we believe in a liberal Iraq and not an Iraq governed by political Islamists. But as a person he is an honorable man, fighter and a good brother,'' Allawi said.

Al-Jaafari is one of the interim government's two vice presidents and heads Dawa, a conservative Islamic religious party. He fought Saddam Hussein and took refuge in Iran for a decade in the 1980's, when Shiite clergy solidified their rule in Iran.

In forming his new coalition to unseat al-Jaafari, Allawi asked the Sunni Arab minority, which mostly boycotted the Jan. 30 elections, to play a role in the new government. Such a move could go a long way toward helping deflate the insurgency, mostly thought to be made up of Sunnis who once belonged to Saddam's Baath party.

Allawi, 60, has staunchly opposed the effort to rid the government and administration of former Baathists.

``The missions ahead of us are very great. Above all is achieving national unity by deed and not just by word, and through the integration of the Iraqi sectors which didn't participate in the elections,'' Allawi said.

Meanwhile, clashes between U.S. troops and insurgents in the so-called Sunni triangle of death killed six Iraqis and left dozens injured in Heet, according to Dr. Mohammed al-Hadithi. Heet is one of several Euphrates River cities west of Baghdad where U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a joint operation Sunday against insurgents.

In Haqlaniyah, 135 miles northwest of the capital, U.S. forces and Iraqi troops fought insurgents throughout the day, the military said. American aircraft fired cannon rounds and dropped bombs to help a Marine patrol that came under small arms and heavy machine-gun fire. The military said there were no American casualties.

Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier was killed when assailants set off a bomb near Tuz, 105 miles north of Baghdad.

In Baghdad, gunmen assassinated the director of the Iraqi Trade Ministry, Saad Abbas Hassan, as he drove down a road, police said. His car swerved and smashed into a shop, killing a child.

And in the northern city of Mosul, insurgents set off a car bomb, killing two people and wounding 14, the U.S. military said. Also in Mosul, U.S. soldiers shot and killed a civilian in a pickup truck who came too close to their convoy.