Quadrilateral summit in Khartoum supports holding referendum on time, calls for either unity or smooth secession

Iraqi parliament approves new government

Head of Iraqi government keeps several portfolios pending agreement over ministers

The leaders of Egypt and Libya were in Khartoum for talks with Sudanese leaders on the future of Africa's largest country ahead of a referendum that's likely to break it into two.

The talks come less than three weeks before a Jan. 9 vote in the mainly animist and Christian south of Sudan on whether the region should secede. The referendum is required under a 2005 peace accord that ended more than 20 years of civil war that left nearly 2 million people dead and the southerners scarred and suspicious of Khartoum's Muslim Arab rulers.

Sudanese presidential spokesman Emad Sid Ahmed told reporters in Khartoum that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi were to meet with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and southern Sudanese leader Salva Kiir.

Egypt says the Khartoum talks are designed to ensure that the referendum is held in a "climate of freedom, transparency and credibility" and that the four leaders would review some of the outstanding issues between the two Sudanese sides, such as the demarcation of the border and the future of the oil-rich area of Abyei on the border between north and south Sudan.

Both Libya and Egypt view Sudan as their strategic backyard and would want to see the breakup of their southern neighbor to be peaceful and avoid any massive flow of refugees into their territory as a result of renewal of fighting.

But an internal U.N. document says the world body is planning for the possibility that 2.8 million people would be displaced in Sudan if hostilities breaks out over the referendum.

The document, obtained by The Associated Press, warns that a "deterioration of the North-South relationship, as well as tensions within northern and southern Sudan could lead to large-scale outflow of people to neighboring countries."

Both militaries have reinforced their positions along the border in recent months, hindering aid work, the report said. If either the north or the south doesn't accept the results of the referendum, the result could be a "war-like" situation, it said.

While Libya sees Sudan as a vital piece of its Africa-focused foreign policy, there is much more at stake there for Egypt, the most populous Arab nation.

Sudan lies astride the middle reaches of the Nile, the primary source of water for mainly desert Egypt. The White Nile, one of the river's two main tributaries, runs through south Sudan. Egypt fears an independent south Sudan may come under the influence of rival Nile basin nations like Ethiopia that have been complaining Egypt uses more than its fair share of the river's water.

"Guaranteeing our water needs and safeguarding our Nile resources are a central component of our vision for the future," Mubarak said in a nationally televised speech this week.

Sudan will adopt an Islamic constitution if the south splits away in a referendum next month, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said.

The vote on independence for south Sudan is scheduled to start in three weeks and was promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended a civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the south, where most follow traditional beliefs and Christianity.

"If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity," the president told supporters at a rally in the eastern city of Gedaref.

"Sharia (Islamic law) and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language," he said.

An official from south Sudan's main party criticized Bashir's stance, saying it would encourage discrimination against minorities in the north and deepen the country's international isolation.

The 2005 peace deal ending the civil war set up an interim constitution which limited sharia to the north and recognized "the cultural and social diversity of the Sudanese people." Analysts expect most southerners to choose independence in the poll, due to start on January 9 and last for a week.

Yasir Arman, from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), said Bashir's statements would encourage repression in the north. "This type of discourse is preparing the ground for a police state. The north, whether alone or with the south, is an extremely diverse place."

Arman said it was the north's hard-line stance that had pushed southerners towards separation. "If it (the north) continues like this it will encourage other areas like Darfur, the Nuba mountains and eastern Sudan to walk out as well," he added, referring to areas on the peripheries of northern Sudan.

"It will also result in Sudan having worse relations with the outside world," Arman said.

Southern leaders have said they are worried about how hundreds of thousands of southerners living in the north might be treated after a split.

Arman, Bashir's main challenger in April presidential elections, is from the northern sector of the SPLM. He said his group would form a separate opposition party inside the north if the south seceded.

Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court to face charges of atrocities in Darfur, but he refuses to recognize the court, dismissing it as part of a Western plot against Sudan. Bashir also defended police shown lashing a woman in footage that appeared on the video-sharing website YouTube. "If she is lashed according to sharia law there is no investigation. Why are some people ashamed? This is sharia," he said.

Bashir's speech coincided with Independence celebrations in the capital where hundreds of marching soldiers and police put on a show of strength.

Vice president Ali Osman Mohamed Taha said Sudan was ready to deal with insecurity during and after the referendum and the authorities would take action against anyone stockpiling goods to take advantage of recent price rises.

Floggings carried out under Islamic law are almost a daily punishment in northern Sudan for crimes including drinking alcohol and adultery.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament gave Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government a vote of confidence and adopted a 43-point program aimed at liberalizing the economy and fighting terrorism.

After more than nine months of political deadlock and wrangling, parliament in separate votes gave its approval to Maliki, three deputy prime ministers and 29 other cabinet ministers, as well as the government program.

And it approved interim ministers for the remaining nine cabinet posts, with Maliki controlling the three security portfolios.

Maliki said he had delayed proposing the remaining ministers because he needed more time to evaluate the options, having received some CVs as late as Tuesday.

"I need more time to choose better, and I will continue to study the files to be able to choose on the basis of efficiency and professionalism," he said.

He also pointed to the lack of women candidates as a reason for the delay.

I find myself obliged... to wait for the political entities to present women candidates," he said.

There is only one woman, Minister of State Bushra Hussein Saleh, among the ministers approved, while there were four in the previous government.

For his part, ex-premier Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya bloc won narrowly more seats than Maliki's in the March 7 election but was unable to forge a parliamentary majority, announced his support for the government.

"We wish and we hope for this government to succeed in meeting the people's requirements," Allawi said, adding that to advance this goal, "we are announcing our full support for the government."

Iraq's latest crop of ministers include Hoshyar Zebari, who has been in every government since 2003, as foreign minister, outgoing deputy prime minister Rafie al-Essawi of Iraqiya as finance minister and former deputy oil minister Abdulkarim al-Luaybi as minister of oil.

Former oil minister Hussein al-Shahristani, who oversaw the signing of billions of dollars in oil deals that paved the way for global energy majors to return to Iraq more than 30 years after Saddam Hussein threw them out, is now a deputy prime minister.

Maliki's still-unfinished cabinet lineup, made up of candidates chosen from Iraq's fractious political blocs, is not the one he would have chosen were he free to make the decision alone, his advisor Ali Moussawi said.

"The new cabinet does not represent the ambition of the prime minister; it reflects the ambition of multiple entities," Moussawi told AFP, adding that "we hoped to form a majority government."

But "the result of the election went in a way that you cannot form a majority, except for a majority of a certain sect," he said, "so we must form a government of national partnership."

The results of the March 7 polls were generally split along sectarian lines, with Shiites mainly supporting Maliki's State of Law bloc or the rival but now allied National Alliance, and Sunnis mostly voting for Allawi's secular Iraqiya.

"The prime minister was obliged to close his eyes to many things" in order to form a partnership government, Moussawi said. "If he had the freedom without pressure... he would choose on the basis of integrity, professionalism and patriotism."

Some parties presented such ministers, while "others didn't, but the government must go ahead and form," he said. Khaled al-Assadi, an MP from Maliki's bloc who is seen as close to the premier, said that reservations remain over nominees for the remaining cabinet posts.

"There are reservations... because some of the nominees have criminal records and some do not have the legal qualification," Assadi told AFP.

Maliki's State of Law Alliance won 89 seats in the March 7 elections, trailing Allawi's Iraqiya by two.

Neither was able to muster the majority needed to form a government, leading to more than nine months of protracted talks before a power-sharing pact was agreed on November 10.

The deal saw Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, being reappointed as president and Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab, being named as speaker of parliament.

Talabani in turn named Maliki for a second term as prime minister on November 25, giving him 30 days to form a government.