BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari struggled yesterday to reach a last-minute consensus within his broad Shiite political coalition on a Sunni Arab to fill the key post of defense minister, while his new Cabinet prepared for a swearing-in ceremony today.
The political negotiations took place on another day of insurgent violence in which bombings killed more than 20 Iraqis, raising the death toll to nearly 140 since Jaafari announced the formation of his government last week.
Also yesterday, two U.S. Marine jets from the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier were reported missing while flying in support of operations in Iraq, the U.S. military said.
Contact was lost with the aircraft at 10:10 p.m. yesterday (2:10 p.m. EDT). There were no initial indications of hostile fire in the area at the time, The Associated Press reported.
Five Cabinet positions in the new Shiite-dominated government are reserved for Sunni Arabs, including a deputy premiership, and have been filled with candidates acceptable to both sides. The Sunni Arab nominee for a sixth position, minister for human rights, is also expected to be approved.
But Jaafari's United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of several Shiite parties and independent individuals, has rejected several candidates for defense minister proposed by a Sunni negotiating committee led by Vice President Ghazi Yawar. Though some candidates were acceptable to Jaafari, others in the alliance rejected them because of their past association with the Baath Party of former President Saddam Hussein.
Sunni Arabs argued that such rejections are unrealistic since the Baath Party dominated political life for more than 30 years. In any event, the Sunni Arabs argued, their candidates had left the party years ago. Yawar, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab in the government, said that the candidates had been carefully screened.
Late yesterday, a spokesman for Yawar said Sunni Arab Cabinet nominees planned to boycott the swearing-in ceremony if the defense ministry job was not filled beforehand. "If our candidates are rejected again," said Ahmed Najati, the spokesman, "the Sunnis will not go to the swearing-in."
Though a minority, Sunni Arabs ruled Iraq for centuries until Saddam was toppled by the U.S. invasion in 2003. Most Sunnis boycotted Iraq's milestone democratic elections in January, some out of fear of violence, others because they rejected the U.S. occupation.
The Sunnis are also seeking commitments that the new government halt the removal of former Baath Party members from government jobs; bring back Sunni officers to the army, move quickly to rebuild war-wracked cities such as Fallujah, and release detainees, including those held by U.S. forces.
Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Jaafari, has said that the Sunni Arab concerns are valid and will be addressed in the program that Jaafari intends to unveil after the swearing-in.
In one attack yesterday, authorities said, two policemen were killed when a suicide bomber handcuffed to his steering wheel slammed on his brakes to avoid a taxi and a police car rammed his explosives-laden vehicle in the Zayouna district of Baghdad. Police said 19 civilians were hospitalized, 12 of them with serious injuries.
Earlier, a bomb exploded in a car parked in a commercial strip in the upscale Karrada neighborhood, killing six people. Police Lt. Ali Amer who was at the scene, said seven people were injured.
U.S. military officials also disclosed yesterday that a suicide bomber who killed more than 25 mourners at a funeral service Sunday in the town of Tall Afar was driving a stolen ambulance.