BAGHDAD -- The Shi'ite religious bloc leading Iraq's parliamentary elections held talks yesterday with Kurdish leaders about who should get the top 12 government jobs, as thousands of Sunni Arabs and secular Shi'ites protested what they say was a tainted vote.
Meanwhile, workers in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala uncovered remains believed to be part of a mass grave dating to a 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein.
The talks between the majority Shi'ites and the Kurds were seen as part of an effort to force the main Sunni Arab organizations to come to the bargaining table. All groups have begun jockeying, and the protests are widely considered to be part of an attempt by Sunni Arabs to maximize their negotiating position.
The discussions come at a critical time for Iraq, with the United States placing high hopes on forming a broad-based coalition government that will provide the fledgling democracy with the stability and security it needs to allow American troops to begin returning home.
Sunni Arabs formed the backbone of Hussein's government, and the Bush administration hopes to pull them away from the insurgency that has ravaged the country with daily bloodshed.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shi'ite religious coalition dominating the current government, traveled to the northern Kurdish city of Irbil for the meeting with Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region.
''Today, we held preliminary consultations," Hakim said at a joint news conference with Barzani. ''All the details need to be studied and we need to evaluate the previous alliance and study its weaknesses and strengths. Then we will try to include the others."
A Kurdish coalition that includes Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party and President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is now the junior partner in a government led by Hakim's United Iraqi Alliance.
Preliminary results from the Dec. 15 vote have given the United Iraqi Alliance a big lead, but one unlikely to allow it to govern without forming a coalition with other groups.
Final results are expected early next month, but the Shi'ite religious bloc may win about 130 seats in the 275-member parliament -- short of the 184 seats needed to avoid a coalition with other parties.
The Kurds could get about 55, the main Sunni Arab groups about 50, and the secular bloc headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a Shi'ite, about 25.
''Our goal is to have a partnership government that enjoys a wide base of support," Hakim said.
Asked about contentions by Sunni Arab groups and secular Shi'ites that the Dec. 15 poll was tainted by fraud, Hakim said ''we have agreed on this with our brothers in the Kurdish coalition. It is impossible to annul the elections results or to hold new elections. We don't accept this."
The United Nations has rejected an outside review, and Hakim said his bloc and the Kurds also were against it.
In the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala, municipal workers doing maintenance work uncovered remains that police believed were part of a mass grave thought to date back to 1991, when Hussein's regime put down a Shi'ite uprising in the south.
The remains -- discovered Monday -- were sent for testing yesterday in an effort to identify the bodies, said Rahman Mashawy, a Karbala police spokesman. He did not say how many bodies were found, and the police claim could not be independently verified.