Pressure mounted Sunday on Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to stand down as Kurdish and some Shiite officials said Iraq's new parliament would be ready to convene within days.
A recent surge of sectarian killing has complicated already snarled negotiations about a new government, which have prevented parliament from meeting since it was elected Dec. 15. The vote was certified last month.
Early Sunday, commandos from the Shiite-led Interior Ministry stormed a Sunni mosque in west Baghdad, killing three people and injuring seven in a 25 minute gunbattle, police said. The reason for the clash was not immediately known.
US officials say a unity government that includes all Iraq's ethnic and religious communities is essential for stabilising the country and allowing US and other foreign forces to start pulling out in the summer. As the largest bloc in parliament, the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance gets the first chance to form a government, but it does not have sufficient seats to do so on its own. Sunni, Kurdish and some secular parties are now pressing the Shiite Alliance to withdraw their nomination of al-Jaafari for a new term. He has served as prime minister in the transitional government that took power in April.
The Sunni Arab minority blames the prime minister for failing to control Shiite militiamen who attacked Sunni mosques and clerics after the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the central city of Samarra. More than 500 people were killed in the violence that followed, according to police and hospital accounts.
Khalaf al-Olayan, a leader of the main Sunni bloc, said Iraq has gone from "bad to worse."
"Al-Jaafari's government failed to solve the chaos that followed the Samarra explosions and did not take any measures to solve the security crisis that could have pushed the country into civil war," he said in comments posted on the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front Web site.
Kurds are angry because they believe al-Jaafari is holding up resolution of their claims to control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
"If al-Jaafari tries to form a government, he will not get any kind of cooperation," said Mahmoud Othman, a leading figure in parliament's Kurdish bloc.
President Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd, entered the fray Saturday, saying the Shiite Alliance should choose another candidate for the sake of consensus.
"I want to be clear, it is not against Dr. al-Jaafari as a person. He has been my friend for 25 years," Talabani told reporters.
The Alliance itself is divided about who should be prime minister: al-Jaafari won the nomination by a single vote at a Feb. 12 Shiite caucus. Some members are troubled by al-Jaafari's ties to radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose support was key in defeating Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the choice of powerful Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. Al-Sadr and al-Hakim, who both have powerful militias behind them, are frequently at odds politically.
In a bid for support, two lawmakers from al-Jaafari's Dawa Party visited the Shiite holy city of Najaf Saturday to seek the endorsement of Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They hinted al-Sistani approved of their candidate. But a senior al-Sistani aide, speaking on condition of anonymity Sunday because of the sensitivity of the dispute, said the spiritual leader had indirectly suggested al-Jaafari should step aside.
On Sunday, it was the turn of Kurdish leaders to meet al-Sistani. The delegation was headed by Planning Minister Barham Saleh, a member of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Talabani said Saturday he hoped to announce soon a date for parliament to convene.
Othman, the Kurdish official, said he expected a presidential decree to be issued Sunday summoning parliament to meet Thursday or Saturday. Haitham al-Husseini, an al-Hakim spokesman, also said lawmakers would likely convene in the next few days.
The political turmoil has created a dangerous leadership vacuum as security forces try to contain the violence unleashed by the destruction of the golden domed Askariya shrine in Samarra.
US Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican visiting Iraq as part of her duties on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Saturday it was imperative that Iraqi politicians act quickly to get a government in place.
"The security vacuum will continue to develop if there isn't a permanent and strong leadership soon," Snowe told The Associated Press.
Masked gunmen guarded the al-Nour mosque Sunday after it was attacked. Bullets had scarred the walls and two unexploded grenades lay on the ground and on a window ledge. Police initially said the mosque's imam was killed in the raid, but later corrected the report.
Sheik Shaker Mahmoud told reporters "a gang using 10 cars stormed the mosque. The cars used by the attackers are the same as those used by the Interior Ministry. The attackers were wearing military uniform."
South of the capital, a policeman was killed and his son injured in a drive-by shooting in the mainly Sunni town of Musayyib. Police found two more bullet-riddled bodies, with hand and legs bound, in Kazimiyah, a northern Shiite suburb of Baghdad. At least 14 more people were killed in a string of bombings and gunfire Saturday. Iraq's president said Saturday he was by Gen. John Abizaid, chief of US Central Command, that American troops would stay in his country as long as needed,
Abizaid, meanwhile, said he was "very, very pleased" with the response of Iraqi armed forces in containing the sectarian bloodshed.
That was a more upbeat assessment than the one given by the US commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, who told reporters that Iraqi police and army units had performed "generally well, not uniformly well."
Casey said the mostly Shiite security forces sometimes gave armed sectarian fighters free rein in Baghdad and Basra, where reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics took days to contain.