BAGHDAD -- Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians increased pressure yesterday on Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'ite, to abandon his bid for a new term, while leaders of Iraq's Shi'ite majority tried to overcome growing internal divisions.
Despite the squabbling, there were reports that the new parliament would be called into session for the first time as early as the end of the week, beginning a 60-day period during which it would have to elect a president and approve a prime minister and Cabinet.
The struggle to form a broad-based governing coalition acceptable to all the main groups in the country has been further hampered by the surge in sectarian conflict.
Targeted sectarian violence killed at least five people yesterday. Three men died in a gunfight at a Sunni mosque in Baghdad, and two relatives of a top Sunni cleric were slain in a drive-by shooting.
Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the UN envoy to Iraq, expressed serious concern yesterday about human rights in the country, citing reports of excessive use of force, illegal detention centers, and disappearances -- many of them linked to insurgents.
The political turmoil has left a leadership vacuum as Iraq's armed forces, backed by the US military, battle to contain sectarian violence that some say has pushed the country toward civil war. The Pentagon's top general said yesterday that he did not think a full-blown civil conflict would break out, although he acknowledged ''anything can happen."
''I do not believe it has deep roots. I do not believe that they're on the verge of civil war," General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on NBC's ''Meet the Press."
A day earlier, the commander of the US military's Central Command, General John Abizaid, said sectarian divisiveness had been worsened by the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra last month and was a threat to Iraq's stability.
During a meeting with Iraqi leaders Saturday, Abizaid urged them to resolve the differences stalling the formation of a government.
''The shrine bombing exposed a lot of sectarian fissures that have been apparent for a while, but it was the first time I've seen it move in a direction that was unhelpful to the political process," Abizaid said afterward.
The US government believes a government with participation across Iraq's communities would be a key step toward improving security and weakening support for insurgents, which would allow Washington and its allies to lower troop numbers.
Under the constitution, the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shi'ite bloc in parliament, has the first crack at forming a government and chose Jaafari as its nominee for prime minister.
But the Alliance has too few seats to act alone. And it is facing a drive by Sunni, Kurdish, and some secular parties that want to prevent Jaafari from remaining in his post, favoring instead the current vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi.