BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Nearly three months after millions of Iraqis defied insurgents and risked their lives to elect a parliament, the country is still struggling to form a new government – in large part because of infighting among Shiite and Kurdish factions.

Animosity and distrust left over from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime also are contributing to the delay in forming a Cabinet – a delay that now is close to imperiling the country’s democratic progress: If the Cabinet isn’t appointed by early next month, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari could be forced to step down.

The stalemate also comes at a time of stepped-up attacks by insurgents and a U.S. official warned the country was being left with an interim government in limbo at a time when strong leadership is needed to combat the violence.

On Saturday, Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s outgoing prime minister, urged the legislators to “safeguard Iraq’s march toward democracy” by ending the standoff.

It is blamed largely on two things: Kurdish factions that oppose al-Jaafari, a Shiite Arab leader, as prime minister; and Shiite factions that don’t want ministers selected from Allawi’s secular party.

Al-Jaafari’s Islamic Dawa Party, a major group in the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, has close ties with Iran’s religious leaders and with Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Some Kurdish legislators want a more secular prime minister and one who favors a federal government that would give strong autonomy to Iraq’s Kurdish north.

In a telephone interview Saturday, Sami al-Askari, a member of the Shiite alliance, said some Kurds distrust al-Jaafari so much that they want to delay the formation of the Cabinet in an effort to unseat him.

“Some Kurds are holding up al-Jaafari’s efforts to form a government so the deadline will expire and another prime minister will have to be selected,” al-Askari said.

Another Shiite official confirmed that, speaking on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are ongoing.

However, Fouad Massoum, a senior official in President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, said few Kurds in parliament are taking that stand. “We don’t object to al-Jaafari, and his removal as Iraq’s prime minister would mean we all fail in forming a government of national unity,” he said in an interview.

Under Iraq’s transitional law, al-Jaafari will automatically lose his position if he does not name a Cabinet by May 7. Al-Jaafari – who has repeatedly predicted he will soon announce a new Cabinet but then failed to do so – was not available for comment on Saturday.

Allawi, a secular Shiite, is the focus of another disagreement over the Cabinet.

Many Shiites have long resented him. They accuse Allawi’s outgoing administration of having brought into his interim government some former members of Saddam’s Baath Party, who had helped carry out policies that oppressed many Iraqis, especially Shiites and Kurds.

On Friday, Allawi’s Iraqi List alliance, which controls 40 seats in the National Assembly, accused Shiites of trying to keep all the party’s members out of the new Cabinet.

Rasim al-Awadi, the party spokesman, said Shiite legislators have failed to respond to Iraqi List’s request for four to eight seats in the Cabinet. He accused Shiite lawmakers of jeopardizing Iraq’s democratic transition but said Iraqi List will continue to support the government, even if it is excluded from the Cabinet.

Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people. The Kurds make up 20 percent, and the Sunni Arabs are roughly 15 percent to 20 percent.

The Sunnis, who largely stayed away from the Jan. 30 election either in boycott of the vote or for fear of attacks, won only 17 of the 275 seats in the National Assembly. The Shiite-dominated alliance won about 48 percent of the vote and the Kurdish alliance finished with 26 percent.

Sunnis are widely believed to form the backbone of the insurgency, and the interim government is trying to include some Sunni officials to win public support from the minority and diminish the violence.

But dozens of people have died in the last two weeks in widespread attacks after a relative lull following the election. Scores of Iraqi bodies also were recently pulled from the Tigris River south of Baghdad.

The U.S. official said Friday that the delay in forming the new government could be contributing to the increased violence. He said the optimism the election generated among Iraqis has “worn off a bit,” giving “the insurgents new hope.” He briefed reporters in Baghdad on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the issue.

In April, the parliament elected Hajim al-Hassani as parliament speaker in a gesture toward the Sunni Arab community and Kurdish leader Talabani to the largely ceremonial job of president. Talabani and his two vice presidents then selected al-Jaafari as interim prime minister.

If al-Jaafari fails to announce a new Cabinet, the trio would have to choose another prime minister.

Parliament has until mid-August to draft a permanent constitution, which must be submitted to a referendum no later than Oct. 15. If the constitution is approved, elections for a permanent government must be held by Dec. 15.

Associated Press correspondents Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

AP-ES-04-23-05 1858EDT

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