Baghdad —Top politicians are stepping up efforts to break a political deadlock and form a new Iraq government more than four months after national elections gave a narrow victory to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's main challenger.
Maliki met late Tuesday night in Baghdad with former premier Ayad Allawi, who leads the Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition that beat Maliki's Shiite bloc by two seats in Iraq's 325-seat parliament. Giving little away, delegate Mohammed Allawi said the talks were "positive" and aimed to form a government "in the next few days," though no top positions were discussed.
That came one day after an unusual meeting in Damascus, Syria, between Allawi and the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who rarely leaves Iran where he is undergoing religious training. His Shiite followers won 39 seats - making him kingmaker.
The reclusive junior cleric praised Allawi's party as "ready to compromise" to form a government. When asked about his readiness to work with Allawi, whom he had called a tool of the Americans when he was prime minister - Allawi had nearly had the cleric killed in 2004 - Sadr said he could "forget all previous differences for Iraq, so that the political process can move forward."
But Sadr upheld his opposition to Maliki - who in the past deployed Iraqi security forces against Sadr's militia followers - becoming premier again.
"I haven't even met (Maliki) - how can I ally with him?" Sadr said.
PROGRESS, BUT NOT A BREAKTHROUGH
The political meetings sought to breathe new life into a process that has angered Iraqis. They are fed up and frustrated with politicians who appear, with all their bickering, more worried about their posts and perks than with forging a government that can solve Iraq's multitude of problems.
"I see movement, but I don't see a breakthrough," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.
"If one imagines that Sadr had reconciled himself to Allawi being the lesser of two evils, you've still got a long way to (go)," said Dodge. "It's still much more likely that Allawi will take second fiddle to Maliki... The Sadrists have a veto, and maybe in talking about Allawi so positively, Sadr is setting some form of (high) price for what's to come."
Such a deal might include Allawi gaining several key security ministries, and serving perhaps as deputy prime minister for security, while Maliki - or someone else from his State of Law bloc, if necessary - takes the top spot.
"Muqtada (al-Sadr) is clear that we do not endorse Mr. Maliki to head the government a second time," said Bahaa al-Araji, a prominent Sadrist politician and re-elected MP who chaired the last parliament's legal committee.
This spring, the Sadrists held a nonbinding referendum on who should lead Iraq; Maliki came in fourth.
NEW DEADLINE: NEXT WEDNESDAY
In Damascus, both sides agreed the government should be formed by next Wednesday - a deadline set by parliament that has already been extended beyond legal limits.
AND IF NOT MALIKI AS PREMIER?
"I believe it will be a person who everybody can agree upon - what we call a consensus choice, just like Mr. Maliki was. And we are optimistic," said Araji.
But completing that simple formula has been far beyond the reach of Iraqi politicians since the March 7 vote. Allawi's Iraqiya bloc won 91 seats, narrowly defeating Maliki's coalition, which took 89 seats.
But neither grouping has yet been able to muster the 163 necessary to form a government, and even fought semantic battles over the language of the constitution about who should be first to do so.
ALLAWI'S IRAQIYA FRUSTRATED WITH DELAY
"If there had been real commitment to the constitution and real belief in the peaceful transfer of authority - there would have been no issue to start with," said Maysoon al-Damlouji, spokeswoman for Iraqiya. "As winners of the election, we should have been given our chance to form the government - and had we failed, they would have had their chance."
"Instead, they chose to circumvent the results and the political process, first by demanding a manual recount, undermining the very credibility of the election - and when that didn't work, by misinterpreting the words of the constitution," said Damlouji.
Speaking on the U.S. satellite channel Hurra Iraq, Jabir al-Jabir, a member of Iraqiya, said: "Iraqiya won the elections and is entitled to form the government, and I doubt Iraqiya would accept less than that. We have a duty towards the citizens who voted for us."
The result, despite the new surge of high-level political meetings, could be more deadlock in Iraq.
"You've got drift," said Dodge, who also teaches at Queen Mary, University of London. "The ministers are not behaving like caretakers. They're still running the ministries and doing what they want without any constraint."
(Special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed)