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Iraq Transition

Iraq politicians set to meet amid strife

Hussein calls for unity against U.S. as violence claims 38 lives

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Violence shook Baghdad and areas outside the capital Wednesday as strikes thought to be fueled by sectarian animosity persisted and Iraqi leaders prepared to huddle to work toward a national unity government.

At least 38 Iraqis died in the violence. They are among more than 400 Iraqis killed amid sectarian fighting that ripped through the tense country after a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra was bombed on February 22, setting off reprisals against Sunnis that led to retaliation against Shiites.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are trying to persuade local and regional leaders to work quickly and put a lid on the hatred, fearing that the tit-for-tat bloodshed will deteriorate into a civil war.

Iraqi political leaders will meet Thursday to discuss the security situation and how to cobble together a national unity government, said Ridha Jawad, a spokesman for the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which won the most seats in December's parliamentary election.

One issue that may be raised is the key nomination of a prime minister by the alliance. Last month, the coalition voted to nominate transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to the post.

The winning party gets first crack at nominating a prime minister, but its choice must win approval in the parliament. Political leaders are trying to agree on an acceptable candidate before the vote is taken.

Al-Jaafari is a Shiite and a member of the Dawa Party, which is part of the alliance.

He won last month's coalition ballot by one vote over Adel Abdul Mehdi, from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and was pushed over the top by support from followers of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

However, opposition to al-Jaafari has been growing, particularly from Kurds and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accord Front, and the Shiite coalition is being pressured to reconsider its decision, Jawad said.

The criticism stems more from his performance over the past year than the deteriorating security environment in Iraq.

He came under intense criticism as a transitional prime minister for not being a strong enough leader, for not forcing compromise among the various political entities and for not delivering adequately on the basics -- water and electricity, as well as security.

Hussein: Try me alone

With many prominent Iraqis recently calling for national unity, even former dictator Saddam Hussein said in court Wednesday that all Iraqis should unite against U.S. occupation.

In court for a second day of hearings this week at his trial for alleged crimes against humanity in 1982, Hussein said he alone should be tried for Iraqi government actions in Dujail after a failed assassination attempt. (Watch Hussein's trial switch gears -- 2:21)

Before adjourning until March 12, prosecutors presented documents they said linked the former Iraqi leader and his co-defendants to the deaths of more than 140 Shiite men in Dujail. (Full story)

Hussein -- a Sunni Muslim -- reportedly learned of the sectarian fighting during a seven-hour meeting earlier this week with a lawyer. On Tuesday, in Hussein's ancestral homeland of Tikrit, bombers damaged a mosque named for his late father.

About 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Tikrit on Wednesday, insurgents ambushed a convoy of Iraqi police officers, killing four and wounding 11, an Iraqi army officer said.

Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin, commander of the army in Kirkuk, said the incident took place during late afternoon on a road between Kirkuk and Tikrit in northern Iraq.

Baghdad toll rises

Meanwhile, 26 of Wednesday's deaths occurred in the capital, bringing the death toll to about 350 over the past week.

At least 23 people were killed and 58 were wounded, police said, in the midday detonation of a car bomb in the heart of New Baghdad, a mixed neighborhood of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians in eastern Baghdad.

The bomb went off only a few hundred yards from a post office that was bombed Tuesday, killing four people and wounding 40. (Full story)

The blast came about an hour after a roadside bomb ripped through a different area of Baghdad -- near a bus station in the central part of the city. That late-morning strike killed three people and wounded seven. (Watch how some define civil war -- 1:17)

Also in Baghdad, a U.S. soldier died in a non-combat incident Wednesday, bringing the American military death toll in the war to 2,296.

Violence also erupted in Diyala and Babil provinces, northeast and south of Baghdad, two areas where security clampdowns and special curfews were enforced last week as communal vendettas spread across the region.

In Babil province, four mortar rounds Wednesday afternoon struck houses in the al-Askari neighborhood in Mahmoudiya, killing three people and wounding three, police said. Mahmoudiya is nearly 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Baghdad in the dangerous region known as the "Triangle of Death."

In southwestern Baquba, in Diyala province, gunmen in a car shot and killed three men as they were walking to their carpentry jobs in the al-Gaton neighborhood.

Two people were killed and four were wounded when gunmen attacked a barber shop in Muqdadiya, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Baquba in Diyala province, the coalition press office in Diyala said.

CNN's Arwa Damon and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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