BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki received the clearest backing yet from Iran in his struggle to remain prime minister. The alliance would appear to pull Iraq closer into Iran's orbit.
In his first visit to Iran since national elections in March, Maliki met with Iranian religious and government leaders and appeared to receive Tehran's support over his Shiite rivals for forming a new government.
"With the occupying forces exiting Iraq and given the current sensitive circumstances, (Maliki) seems to be one of the appropriate choices for Iraq," Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Rauf Sheybani told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), adding that Maliki was "respected" by Iran.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who met with Maliki, welcomed a post-U.S. era in Iraq.
"The Iraqi nation is vigilant and aggressors cannot dominate this country again. May God get rid of America in Iraq so that its people's problems are solved," state television quoted Khamenei as telling the Iraqi leader.
MALIKI GOES TO QOM TO VISIT SADR
Maliki was expected to travel from Tehran to Qom, a main center of Shiite religious scholarship, to meet Muqtada al Sadr, the hard-line cleric whose militia fought against Iraqi Army forces in Basra and other cities two years ago.
The Sadr movement, which won about 12 percent of seats in the 325-member parliament, announced last week that it would throw its support behind Maliki - a reversal of its long-held position that it could not work with him.
Maliki, in an Oct. 8 interview with the Monitor, denied that he had promised the Sadr bloc security posts in exchange for their support, but said they would receive a number of cabinet positions proportionate to their numbers within his coalition.
WHY THE U.S. IS CONCERNED ABOUT SADR'S INVOLVEMENT
The U.S. has publicly expressed alarm at the prospect of the Sadrists having substantial positions of power, despite their strong showing in what Washington described as credible elections.
Sadr's Mehdi Army fought U.S. soldiers in Najaf and cities throughout the south in 2004 and were a significant factor in the sectarian violence that swept through the country in 2006 and 2007.
Sadr, who has been studying in Qom for the last two years to burnish his religious credentials, has said he has renounced violence and disbanded the Mehdi Army as a paramilitary force.
JOCKEYING FOR SUNNI, KURDISH ROLES
Even with Iran's backing however, Maliki is still far from assured of forming a government. His coalition is several seats short of a simple majority in parliament and many more seats for what would be considered a comfortable majority.
The two major Kurdish factions have been negotiating with both Maliki and Allawi after presenting them with a list of 21 demands, which include Kurdish control over resources in the north, allocation of disputed territories, and veto power over key decisions.
The U.S. has been pushing an arrangement that would keep Maliki as prime minister but give a strong role to Allawi in an effort to form a more inclusive government that does not sideline Sunni Arabs.
The Sunni boycott of the political process many of them saw as Shiite-controlled helped fuel the insurgency. Allawi, who has also been touring regional capitals in an effort to shore up support, on Sunday, again accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs.
(McClatchy and the Christian Science Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad)