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Kurds, Shi'ites near power-sharing deal

Bombing kills 2 US contractors

BAGHDAD -- Kurdish leaders said they were near a final agreement yesterday with the majority Shi'ites to form a coalition government when Iraq's first democratically elected parliament in modern history convenes later this week.

More talks are scheduled to take place in Baghdad today. The deal calls for Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, to be named president. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a member of the Shi'ite majority who leads the conservative Islamic Da'wa party, would become prime minister.

But as the country neared a political landmark many hoped would set the stage for an eventual US withdrawal, two American security contractors were killed and a third was wounded in a roadside bombing south of Baghdad.

The three worked for Blackwater Security, a firm based in North Carolina that provides security for US State Department officials and facilities in Iraq. They were attacked on the main road to Hillah, south of Baghdad, according to Bob Callahan, a US Embassy spokesman.

In Mosul, 225 miles north of Baghdad, US and Iraqi troops killed five insurgents in street fighting, the military said. Three other people -- a woman and two children -- were killed inadvertently when a US helicopter gunship fired at insurgents, according to Jumhuri Teaching Hospital in Mosul.

The military said at least five Iraqis were wounded in the incident, which occurred when a patrolling helicopter was fired on by insurgents in four cars. The US helicopter returned fire, destroying three of the cars, and US officials said the incident was under investigation.

Also yesterday Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin of France reported new contact and information about kidnapped French journalist Florence Aubenas and her Iraqi interpreter, Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi. Raffarin said the developments gave hope that the reporter for the Liberation newspaper could be freed. Aubenas and her translator were kidnapped in Baghdad on Jan. 5.

Liberation director Serge July visited Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque, which serves as headquarters of the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential organization of Sunni clerics. Sunni Arabs make up the bulk of Iraq's insurgency.

In protest against insurgent violence, about 50 Shi'ites demonstrated outside Jordan's embassy after reports that the suicide bomber who killed 125 people in a Feb. 28 attack in Hillah was Jordanian. The protesters burned at least one Jordanian flag.

The political developments yesterday occurred outside the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, a Kurdish enclave, where leaders of the minority said they were working out final details on a coalition government in accordance with a deal reached earlier this month with the Shi'ite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance.

The two camps are expected to formalize their agreement today, two days before the National Assembly convenes for the first time since Jan. 30 elections.

''The basic Kurdish demands are not about the Kurds only, but the whole of Iraq," said interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd. ''We are working for an Iraqi process, a coalition government that respects the constitution."

In other violence reported yesterday, a US soldier was gunned down in an insurgent attack in Mosul. The death brought to at least 1,514 the number of US military personnel killed since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to the Associated Press.

Foreign contractors, too, are often targeted by anti-US guerrillas. At least 232 American civilian security and reconstruction contractors were killed in Iraq up to the end of 2004, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The Blackwater employees killed Saturday were in the last vehicle in a four-vehicle convoy and were traveling to Hillah from Baghdad. The road crosses an area known as the Triangle of Death because of the frequency of insurgent attacks.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the contractors were assigned to protect American diplomats.

In other violence, two Iraqis were killed and five injured in a roadside bombing intended for a US convoy in southeast Baghdad yesterday, said Dr. Ali Karim at Kindi Hospital.

In Sharqat, 160 miles northwest of Baghdad, a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle Saturday outside the house of the town's chief of special police forces, police Colonel Jassim al-Jubouri said. The chief was not harmed, but four people were killed and several were injured.

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