BAGHDAD — A political conflict threatened to further exacerbate Iraq's sectarian and ethnic divisions Thursday as Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders issued a letter demanding that the leading Shiite Muslim coalition withdraw its nomination of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari to head the next government.
The dispute came as a top Sunni politician narrowly escaped assassination and the government announced a one-day ban on daytime vehicle traffic effective this morning in Baghdad in an effort to rein in continued violence.
"We had many conflicts with the past government, and for it to continue for the next four years is just unacceptable to us," said Faraj Haydary of the Kurdish Alliance, which has gotten other political blocs to sign off on the formal letter delivered Thursday.
Politicians with the lead United Iraqi Alliance, which holds a plurality of seats in the new parliament, warned that efforts to form a national unity government, a major goal of U.S. officials, might collapse if the Kurds and Sunnis don't back down.
"Jafari is the nominee, and the UIA will not be provoked in this way," said Fadhil Shara, a political representative of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's office in Baghdad.
The political maneuvering threatened to further destabilize the country after a spasm of sectarian clashes that left hundreds dead over the last week. The violence continued Thursday, with police reporting that more than 30 people were killed in attacks across the country.
Adnan Dulaimi, a leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front party and among the country's top Sunni politicians, had just stepped out of his car to have a flat tire repaired when gunmen opened fire on his convoy in southern Baghdad on Thursday afternoon. One security guard was killed and five others were wounded in the attack, according to a statement released by the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni grouping.
Gunmen also opened fire on an Iraqi checkpoint north of the city of Samarra, killing six soldiers and four police officers. A bomb exploded in southeast Baghdad, killing eight people and wounding nine, according to police. In Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum on Baghdad's eastern edge, a bomb planted under the back seat of a minibus exploded, killing three and wounding three, police and hospital officials said.
Gunmen shot dead four policemen in the northern city of Mosul, while police found the bodies of five men in and around the capital, according to Associated Press.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. military said that an American soldier assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Multinational Force-West, had been killed the previous day in Fallouja.
On the political front, political leaders opposed to Jafari said they could gather enough support in the new parliament to block his nomination and offer up their own candidate.
"We want someone that will rule the country in a neutral way, not in a sectarian way," said Saleh Mutlak, head of the National Dialogue Front, a Sunni political group in parliament.
Haydary, of the Kurdish Alliance, said the letter issued Thursday was a Kurdish initiative.
"Our ministers and the president had bad experiences" with Jafari, he said. "The next government head will be the prime minister of all Iraq and not only the Shiite alliance, so his actions will hurt us all." Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, is Iraq's president.
Shiites reacted angrily. They have previously denounced Sunni and Kurdish discontent over Jafari as part of a plot by Americans to control the political process.
"How can we work with others when they want to stall your movement at every corner," said Haider Abadi, a Jafari advisor and member of parliament. The alliance reconfirmed its support for the interim prime minister during a meeting Thursday night, Abadi said.
"The Kurds have no right to agree or disagree upon our nominee for prime minister; they should not interfere with our internal affairs [but] accept our wishes," said Abbas Bayati, a Shiite member of the team negotiating a new government. "Jafari was nominated based on voting and open democratic practice within the alliance slate. If anyone would veto our choice, likewise we will stand against their nominee, and the whole thing will collapse."
In the new 275-seat parliament, Kurds control 53 seats and a Sunni alliance controls 44. By exploiting dissension within the Shiite bloc and with the help of various secular parties, they could derail Jafari's candidacy. The parliament will select a three-member presidential council, which must be approved by a two-thirds majority, and that group will approve the new prime minister and Cabinet.
Jafari is operating from a weak base, having narrowly won his own coalition's nomination for prime minister. The softspoken theologian also has come under criticism for his handling of the security situation after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, viewed by Shiites as a key holy site, which triggered the recent wave of sectarian violence.
Jafari compounded Sunni anger Thursday by transferring control of the shrine from a Sunni religious foundation to Shiites.
"Any attempt to change its administration is an invitation for sectarian sedition with unpredictable consequences," said the head of the Sunni endowment, Abed Gaffour Samarai.
The near-destruction of the shrine last week spurred a wave of sectarian killings and attacks on mosques around the country. The government imposed emergency security measures, enforcing daytime curfews and canceling all leave for Iraqi security forces.
Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed, Zainab Hussein and Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.