At least 24 people killed in Baghdad blast

The bomb went off hours before the Parliament was due to vote into office a new government.

india Updated: May 20, 2006 13:56 IST

Bombs killed 24 people in Iraq on Saturday, including 19 in a Shi'ite district of Baghdad, hours before Iraq's Parliament was to inaugurate a national unity government aimed at halting a slide toward civil war.

Police said 58 were wounded in the blast targeting Shi'ite labourers in eastern Sadr City slum.

It was typical of bombings by Sunni Islamists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al- Qaeda in Iraq.

Witnesses and police said the bomb appeared to have been planted in a spot where the attackers knew large crowds of men would gather shortly after dawn, hoping to be hired for a day's casual labour. Such spots have been targeted in the past.

"When will this stop? Where is the government?" one teenager sobbed as he stood amid pools of blood.

A man beat his face with his hands as he hugged his dead brother lying on the floor. Survivors rushed the wounded to hospital.

A dozen bodies, their faces covered with cardboard, lay on the hospital garden.

In the town of Qaim, near the Syrian border, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-packed vest inside a police station killing five policemen and wounding 10, police said.

Parliament had been due to sit at 11 am to approve a government that may hold full sovereign powers for the four-year term of the legislature, but last-minute negotiations delayed the session.

A new government should end months of inertia amid mounting sectarian bloodshed and talk of impending civil war.

Launching a crucial new phase in the US-backed project to install democracy, Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki struck a basic deal on Friday that left the key posts of interior and defence minister vacant, aides and top negotiators said.

There may be some fine-tuning at the last minute but, with jobs for nearly all parliamentary groups the assembly's approval for Maliki's ministers is likely to be a formality.

Iraqi leaders hailed a government of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Shi'ites as a break from Iraq's past, marked by confrontation.

"It is an historic day for Iraq and all Iraqis," Deputy Parliament Speaker Khalid al-Attiya told a news conference.

"For the first time a permanent national government is formed after the toppling of the regime. All Iraqis participate in this government."

The government can be sure of an enthusiastic welcome in Washington, where frustration with Iraqis' sectarian and ethnic haggling has grown over the five months since an election hailed as a final step from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship to democracy.

For President George W Bush, who launched the invasion in 2003, stability is key to bringing home 130,000 US troops.

Iraqis too, who turned out in large numbers to vote in December polls, have been growing impatient for a leadership that can address their massive problems -- security certainly, but also a devastated economy and poor basic public services.

Under a constitutional timetable, Maliki's 30 days to name a cabinet end on Monday.

Despite confident initial assertions that he would need only a week or two, wrangling among and within Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs came close to thwarting him.

Still, the key security posts at interior and defence have eluded his deal-making skills, even though all blocs agreed the jobs should go to a Shi'ite and Sunni respectively.

Barring an 11th-hour solution, Maliki will run the Interior Ministry for a week and Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi will run defence.

Complaints among Saddam's once dominant Sunni minority that the Shi'ite majority brought to power by the U.S. invasion was abusing its control of the Interior Ministry by running death squads within the police focused attention on the interior post.

An upsurge in sectarian killings, some by men in uniform, after February's bombing of a major Shi'ite shrine has prompted growing alarm. Hundreds of people are being killed every month in Baghdad alone and tens of thousands have fled their homes.

Maliki, a tough-talking defender of Shi'ite interests since his return from exile in 2003, has won praise from Sunnis for his willingness to seek consensus.

But many question whether a government cobbled together according to religious and ethnic labelling can overcome centrifugal forces tearing Iraq apart.

The US ambassador publicly insisted on a "non-sectarian" figure to run the Interior Ministry. Senior officials said outgoing Interior Minister Bayan Jabor had secured the Finance Ministry, despite hostility towards him in Washington.

The new oil minister will most likely be Hussain al-Shahristani, a nuclear physicist and senior Shi'ite Islamist. Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih is expected also to take a big role in overseeing economic reconstruction.

Officials said more than half the 30 or so ministries are allocated to the Shi'ite Alliance, which has close to a parliamentary majority but is divided among many factions.

Sunnis, whose participation in the political process is vital after three years of rejection and revolt, have at least five portfolios while Kurds, who have the presidency, have about four, including keeping Hoshiyar Zebari as foreign minister.

Followers of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a close ally of Washington's foes in Shi'ite Iran, appeared to have secured at least three posts, including the influential Health Ministry.

First Published: May 20, 2006 10:33 IST