Baghdad, Iraq — Shiite lawmakers met on Sunday, the third anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces, in the first formal step to break the deadlock over Sunni and Kurdish opposition to their choice for a prime minister to head the next government.
But the meeting, held at the insistence of the Shiites' top clerical leadership, failed to produce any breakthroughs, as Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's key allies stuck by their support for him, according to Shiite officials.
Iraq ob-served "Freedom Day," a holiday that commemorates U.S. Marines tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein as Iraqis cheered in Firdous Square on April 9, 2003, marking the collapse of Saddam's regime.
Representatives of the seven factions within the United Iraqi Alliance made no final decisions during the Sunday meeting but agreed to form a three-member committee to discuss the crisis with Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties that have opposed al-Jaafari.
Though the Shiites' support is still behind al-Jaafari, several names have been floated as possible alternatives as the Shiites face massive pressure from the U.S. and top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to speed formation of the new government.
The Shiites planned to meet again today to review their options.
Late Sunday, the Shiite committee met with Kurdish leaders, who stuck by their insistence that al-Jaafari must go. Kurdish elder statesman Mahmoud Othman said the Kurds made clear they would not participate in a government headed by al-Jaafari.
Sunnis and Kurds have blamed al-Jaafari for the rise in tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, which boiled over following the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, triggering reprisal attacks against Sunnis that plunged the nation to the brink of civil war.
As of Sunday, April 9, 2006, at least 2,350 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
Al-Sistani has insisted that Shiite politicians resolve the deadlock as soon as possible in the interest of national unity.
With al-Jaafari refusing to step aside and his key supporters standing fast, Shiite officials have been reluctant to try to force the prime minister to withdraw, fearing it would shatter their alliance.
The constitution states that the prime minister must come from the ranks of the largest faction in parliament. The Shiites won 130 of the 275 seats in the Dec. 15 election, making them the biggest faction but without enough strength to govern without partners.
Meanwhile, at least 15 people were killed Sunday, including eight suspected insurgents shot by American soldiers in a pre-dawn raid north of the capital.
The turmoil across this country stands in sharp contrast to the euphoria that swept many areas of Iraq when Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed during the U.S.-led invasion three years ago.
"Freedom Day" has been declared a national holiday, although the day was not celebrated in Fallujah and other parts of insurgent-infested Anbar province.
The insurgency, militias, rising sectarian violence, electricity shortages and the political vacuum all have sapped much of the enthusiasm generated by the collapse of Saddam's dictatorship.
"Iraqis are pleased and displeased," said Qassim Hassan, a soldier. "They are pleased because they got rid of tyranny and dictatorship, but they are displeased because they went from bad to worse. The Iraqi street is seething between sadness and terrorism."
Also Sunday, kidnappers threatened to kill two German engineers seized by gunmen in January in northern Iraq unless prisoners held by U.S. forces are freed. The two Germans - Thomas Nitzschke and Rene Braeunlich - were shown in a video posted Sunday on the Web pleading for help.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government was "doing everything in our power to save the lives of the hostages."