BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Shiite Muslim and Kurdish parties leading Iraq failed to win enough seats in last month's parliamentary election to form a new government on their own, complete returns showed yesterday, setting the stage for U.S.-backed talks aimed at bringing Sunni Arabs and other minority parties into a broader ruling coalition.
The tally confirmed the pre-eminence of a Shiite alliance led by two Iranian-backed religious parties, which won 128 of the parliament's 275 seats. The next-largest bloc, 53 seats, went to Kurdish parties, which are again expected to join the Shiites as junior partners in running the country.
But their combined total of 181 was three seats shy of the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the makeup of a new government and far fewer than most optimistic Shiite forecasts right after the Dec. 15 election. Smaller parties seized on the outcome to demand a share of power in negotiations that are expected to play out for weeks.
The stakes are high. U.S. officials aim to broker a significant Sunni role in the next government - Iraq's first with a full four-year term since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein - in the hope of undermining a Sunni-led insurgency and enabling American troops to go home.
Meanwhile, U.S. negotiators were working around the clock to secure the release of hostage American journalist Jill Carroll as a deadline set by militants threatening to kill her passed yesterday with no word on her fate.
Muslims from Baghdad to Paris urged the militants to free the 28-year-old woman and end Iraq's wave of kidnappings. More than 240 foreigners have been taken captive and at least 39 killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Carroll was seized in a rough Baghdad neighborhood Jan. 7 by gunmen who killed her translator. The Sunni Arab politician she had gone to interview urged her release and demanded that U.S. forces stop detaining Iraqi women.
Iraqi troops and police sealed off yesterday all roads between Baghdad and the restive provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala, trying to discourage any insurgent attacks planned to coincide with the Iraqi electoral commission's announcement.
Little violence was reported across the country. Two civilians were killed in one of several bomb attacks on U.S. and Iraqi patrols, Reuters reported.
The 10.9 million Iraqis who went to the polls Dec. 15, a turnout of 70 percent, voted sharply along ethnic and sectarian lines. Yesterday's returns underscored the growing appeal of parties based on sectarian and ethnic identity, and the sharp decline of more moderate secular rivals favored by Washington.
In a statement anticipating the results, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called on the leading Shiite, Kurdish, Sunni and secular parties to form an all-inclusive government. Khalilzad, who is expected to play a mediating role, said the parties "must come together to reinforce their commitment to democratic principles and national unity."
Diplomats in touch with the contending parties said the fragmented vote favored such an approach. The Shiite and Kurdish blocs, which had more than two-thirds of the seats in the interim parliament elected a year ago, fell below that mark this time.
"They are close, but they don't have it," said a Western diplomat in Baghdad. "This should encourage movement toward a unity government."
Sunnis dominated Iraq under Hussein's rule. After boycotting last January's election and shutting themselves out of the interim government, Sunni parties will enter the negotiations with 55 seats divided between two blocs.
The Iraqi Accordance Front, backed by influential Sunni clerics, won 44 of those seats; the others went to the more militant Iraqi Front for National Dialogue. Sunnis had 17 seats in the outgoing parliament, none representing major parties.
The Sunnis' gains came at the expense of Shiites, Kurds and secular parties.
The Iraqi National List, led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite politician who was the U.S.-appointed prime minister from June 2004 until last April, won 25 seats, dropping from 40 seats in the previous parliament. Two other secular parties in the race, led by Mishan Jaboori and Mithal Aloosi, won four seats between them.
The remaining seats went to ethnic and sectarian-based splinter groups - five to the Islamic Union of Kurdistan, two to the Shiite-based Progressive Party, one each to parties representing the Turkoman and Christian minorities, and one to the Yazidi religious sect.
Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, at least 2,222 U.S. service members had died since military operations began in March 2003.
Army Pfc. Adam R. Shepherd, 21, Somerville, Ohio; died Tuesday in Baghdad of an illness; assigned to Army's 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky.
Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Rex C. Kenyon, 34, El Segundo, Calif., and Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ruel M. Garcia, 34, Wahiawa, Hawaii; killed Monday when their helicopter was shot down in Baghdad; assigned to 1st Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment (Attack), Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
[ Associated Press]