BAGHDAD — Iraq's divided political leaders met Monday for the first time since March elections in a bid to break an eight-month deadlock that has left Iraqis with no new government and vulnerable to escalating violence.
Bombings on Monday in Iraq's normally calm holy cities of Najaf and Karbala killed at least 22 people and wounded dozens more. The attacks followed the storming of a church in Baghdad eight days ago in which more than 50 Iraqi Christians were killed during Sunday mass and a string of coordinated bombings in Shiite areas across the city two nights later killed at least 70.
The meeting in the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil between Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, his main rival, former prime minister Iyad Allawi, and the leaders of the major Shiite and Kurdish blocs was meant to jump-start serious negotiations over forming a coalition government.
Political leaders have come under increasing pressure to meet since an Iraqi court ordered parliament to convene. The parliament is due to meet Thursday for what is expected to be a brief session before negotiations resume on the sidelines.
"This is just one meeting - the first of many to come in which many issues must be resolved in order to reach an agreement," Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, who hosted the talks, told reporters after the nationally televised meeting. "I see many details - too many to be resolved in two or three days."
U.S. CALLS FOR KURDISH LEADER TO STEP ASIDE
The talks over forming a government have been bogged down by insistence by both Maliki and Allawi that they are entitled to be prime minister, and disagreements over which party would get the presidency and the role of parliamentary speaker.
Despite strong opposition even within Maliki's own coalition to him retaining his position, as a religious Shiite politician with substantial popular support, he appears to be most likely to emerge as prime minister.
Much of national and international concern over the new government focuses on the consequences of excluding Allawi's secular Iraqiya coalition, which has strong support from Sunni Muslims. The sense of alienation by Sunnis in the new Shiite-dominated Iraq is believed to have fueled the insurgency here.
Political sources say although Iraqiya is publicly still insisting on the prime ministry, in closed-door negotiations they have shifted to demanding the presidency with expanded powers. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani has been president in every Iraqi government since Saddam Hussein was toppled, and the Kurds are unlikely to easily give up the post.
"We've been under tremendous pressure by the Americans in ... clearly asking President Talabani to step down," said a Kurdish source close to the talks. He said both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have asked Talabani to step aside in recent phone calls.
Under a scenario in which Allawi would become president, the Kurds would likely be given the position of speaker of parliament - a role that would allow them some control over debate on some of the thorniest issues facing the country and involving the Kurds. The parliament elected eight months ago will have to try to resolve issues that include territories claimed by both Arabs and Kurds, and sharing of oil revenue.
ATTEMPT TO REIGNITE SECTARIAN VIOLENCE?
The car bomb in Najaf detonated less than half a mile from the shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. Like the string of car bombs that exploded last week in Shiite areas in Baghdad, it appeared designed to reignite sectarian violence by bringing Shiite militias out to fight Sunni extremist groups believed responsible for the ongoing attacks.
The car parked between tour buses of Iranian pilgrims in Najaf killed eight people, including two of the pilgrims, and injured 21 when it detonated, according to security officials.
In Karbala, also sacred to Shiites, a car bomb near the entrance to the city targeted another Iranian tour bus. Fourteen people, including five Iranian pilgrims were killed and 40 others were injured in that attack, security officials said.
Karbala contains the tomb of the Imam Hussein, revered by Shiites as a rightful successor to the prophet Mohammed. His 7th-century martyrdom here has defined Shiite identity ever since.
Although Al Qaida in Iraq and groups linked with it have claimed responsibility for most of the attacks on Shiites and on the church, many Iraqis believe feuding political parties are behind it.
"This is not terrorism - this is a political struggle between the parties. We have no government and no one is accountable," said a shopkeeper in Najaf near the explosion.
(Sahar Issa and Laith Hammoudi contributed from Baghdad, and Qassim Zain from Najaf)