BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s president issued a decree Friday calling the new parliament into session March 19 for the first time since it was elected nearly three months ago, saying he feared “catastrophe” and “civil war” if politicians could not put aside their differences.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said he hoped leaders of all Iraqi factions would soon join him some place outside Baghdad to talk round the clock to resolve political feuds – most visibly over the proposed second-term candidacy of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite.

The stakes are high for the Americans, who want a strong and functioning central government in place quickly to enable Washington to begin removing some of its 132,000 troops this summer.

In Washington, President Bush acknowledged on Friday that the bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine late last month and the subsequent sectarian violence, which killed hundreds, had nearly derailed the U.S. goal. The situation also remains dangerous for foreigners, especially civilians not associated with coaltition forces.

The body of Tom Fox, one of four Christian Peacemakers activists kidnapped last year in Iraq, was found on Friday, a State Department spokesman said. The discovery came three days after a videotape was broadcast of three of the men appealing to their governments to secure their release. Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va., was not in the video and Al-Jazeera television, which aired the footage, could not explain his absence.

“There’s no question there was violence and killing,” Bush said in advance of a series of speeches he plans in a campaign to convince Americans that the United States is on the right path to defeat Iraqi terrorists and insurgents.

But, echoing the assessment of Gen. George W. Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Bush said: “The society took a step back from the abyss, and people took a sober reflection about what a civil war would mean.”

Apparently taking up Khalilzad’s call for an extraordinary gathering away from Baghdad’s violence and hothouse political atmosphere, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani quickly issued an invitation Friday to convene in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish province he runs.

“The negotiations in Baghdad have reached a stage that could only be described as a crisis,” Barzani said in a statement released moments before his fellow Kurd, President Jalal Talabani, issued the decree to convene parliament on March 19.

“To get past this crisis, we need a new mechanism in a new place that brings everybody around the table,” Barzani said.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Elizabeth Colton said Khalilzad “has begun discussing the ideas with Iraqi political leaders, but there is nothing definite yet and no plans yet for where or when, should it be decided.” His call for a meeting of politicians outside the capital was first reported Friday by Time magazine.

Kamal al-Saidi, a Shiite legislator in al-Jaafari’s Dawa Party, said there was no objection from the bloc to going to Irbil, but “we want to know the reason behind this invitation.” He said al-Jaafari’s capitulation now to demands that he step aside “means committing suicide” and more forced concessions later.

For his part, Talabani, the Iraqi president, sounded far from sanguine after issuing the degree on parliament.

“There is a serious crisis, and if we don’t agree on a government of national unity there will be dangerous consequences, a catastrophe. We could have civil war,” he told al-Arabiya television.

As if to underline Talabani’s concerns, police and the U.S. military reported at least 20 more killings Friday, including a U.S. Marine who died in a car bombing in Fallujah. Police said they found the bodies of eight more men killed execution-style, mainly shot in the back of the head.

State Department spokesman Noel Clay said the FBI verified that a body found in Iraq Friday morning was that of Fox. Clay said he had no information on the other three hostages.

Fox’s family has been notified, Clay said, and “our heartfelt condolences go out to them.”

The hostages seen in the brief video shown Tuesday and dated Feb. 28 were Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32; and Briton Norman Kember, 74.

Talabani, who has opened a campaign with Sunni and some secular politicians to deny al-Jaafari a second term, first sought to issue the parliamentary decree last Sunday. But the Shiite bloc, the largest in parliament, closed ranks, and Talabani was unable to obtain the needed signature of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, one of his two vice presidents and a Shiite.

Abdul-Mahdi, who is backed by Shiite heavyweight Adbul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was al-Jaafari’s chief rival for the Shiite nomination.

On Thursday, however, he reversed position and agreed to sign Talabani’s decree. After subsequent intense negotiations among dozens of political leaders made no progress on the al-Jaafari issue, it was decided to call parliament into session regardless.

Talabani said he was leading the challenge against al-Jaafari’s candidacy on grounds he was too divisive and would be unable to form a government representing all Iraq’s religious and ethnic factions.

There remains great unease over al-Jaafari’s close ties to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia, the Mahdi Army, has been accused by Sunni Muslims of, among other things, involvement in much of the sectarian violence after the Shiite shrine bombing Feb. 22 in Samarra.

Al-Sadr, as if to deepen concerns, said in a television interview Friday night that the United States, Britain and Israel were a “triad of evil,” an obvious play on words Bush used in his 2002 State of the Union address to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”

He also said the Samarra bombers worked in “collusion with” the United States and Israel.

Once parliament sits, which the constitution says should have happened this Sunday – a month after the Dec. 15 election results were certified – it has 60 days to elect a new president, approve al-Jaafari as prime minister and sign off on his Cabinet.

The seven Shiite blocs in parliament control the largest number of seats, which entitles them to name the candidate for prime minister.

AP-ES-03-10-06 2142EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.