Last Updated on February 25, 2006 by Paulette Brown-Hinds

By Mohammed A. Salih

ARBIL, Feb. 23, 2006 (IPS/GIN) – The bombing of the Al-Askari Shia shrine and the wave of killings and attacks o­n Sunni mosques that followed have further endangered the fragile moves toward forming a government.

Sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias, already high, have been further heightened. The new violence represents a major setback to bringing Sunni and Shia leaders together into an all-inclusive government.

In the Dec. 15 elections, the Shia Islamist slate of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) got 129 seats, Kurds gained 53 and the Iraqi Accord Front (IAF) of the major Sunni parties, 44. Former prime minister Ayad Allawi's secular slate ended up fourth with 25 seats.

The election results made it impossible for any party to form a government o­n its own. Coalitions are needed to give a ruling group a two-thirds majority in the 275-member parliament.

Last week the UIA re-nominated Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jafari for a second term. That decision sent shock waves through Iraq's political circles; Al-Jafari has been repeatedly criticized by other parties and observers for his inefficiency.

“Over the past year, Jafari didn't comply that much with the interim constitution and didn't have a good record,” says Professor Sarhang Hamid Barzinji from the College of Law and Political Science in Arbil. “So, Shias should have chosen someone who is popular among all.”

Earlier this month, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told the Shia bloc that if they choose someone too close to Iran, the United States would cut aid to the future Iraqi government. Al-Jafari is known for his close ties to Tehran clerics.

Jafari's nomination was unexpected. His moderate rival in the Shia coalition, Adel Abdul Mahdi, had been expected to win. o­n that expectation, reports had begun to circulate of an alliance between Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Allawi's group. Azad Jundiyani, head of the media bureau of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party of outgoing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, rejected the reports as baseless and untrue.

“There is no such plan to create a coalition against the UIA and we are trying to get all the lists gathered around a unified political program and mechanism for creating the government,” Jundiyani told IPS. He said the UIA would be the first party Kurds negotiate with to form the government.

But seemingly insurmountable differences loom. Shias want the future parliament to introduce an article in the constitution to allow them to create federal regions in the predominantly Shia southern Iraq. Sunnis oppose t hat move.

Sunnis have complained of the Shia-run Interior Ministry's sectarian-motivated raids in Sunni neighborhoods. They say that Interior and Defense ministries should be run by politicians other than those of the UIA.

The new bomb attack and killings are certain to harden these continuing differences between Shias and Sunnis.

Kurdish leaders have set the return of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to the Kurdish autonomous region in the northern part of the country as their major condition for participating in government.

A few days after the announcement of the election results, Sunni parties joined forces with Allawi to create the second-largest parliamentary bloc with 80 seats. But Kurdish observers say this would not affect the Kurdish position in the future government.

“In fact, the Kurdish and Shia list have had talks earlier, and they seem to have jumped over other lists to create the government,” said Barzinji.

Hardliners in the UIA loyal to radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have expressed their opposition to any participation by Allawi in the future government.

The current tensions may drag the talks o­n for months. Many fear that a government that is not widely representative can bring serious consequences for the country.

“If the future government wouldn't be an inclusive and broad-based o­ne, where the constitution is complied with, then civil war may break out,” said Barzinji.