Iraqi politics: Breakthrough or another breakdown?

BAGHDAD — A flurry of proposals has led to considerable movement in Iraq's seven-month political deadlock, but neither Iraqi nor U.S. officials are counting on an imminent announcement ending Iraq's epic struggle to form a government.

As the country lurched into the history books with one of the longest delays in government formation ever after holding elections, followers of hard-line Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al Sadr announced that they'd withdrawn their opposition to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and would back him for a second term.

The turnaround by the Sadr movement, the biggest bloc in parliament, brings Maliki within four seats of the majority he needs to form a coalition. However, the other major requirements for a workable government — inclusion of the main Sunni parties and of the Kurds _have yet to be met.

"There are some ideas out there to bring the leaders together to have them talk through how best to achieve an inclusive government," the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, told reporters Tuesday. He said that Iraqi as well as U.S. officials think that an inclusive government needs to include Ayad Allawi, the leader of the largely secular al Iraqiya group that's backed by many Sunnis, and the Kurds.

Jeffrey, speaking on the sidelines of a U.S. trade mission to Iraq, said that while there appeared to have been "considerable movement" over the past two weeks, he couldn't predict when a government could be formed.

Seven months after Iraqis went to the polls, a tumultuous mix of ethnic and sectarian aspirations along with personal egos and ambition has kept political leaders from forming a coalition.

A leading member of the Iraqiya bloc, Ezz al Deen al Dawla, said that the parties are still at "square one." He predicted that it could take more than two months more to agree on a government.

"All of the parties with no exceptions are hungering for power — I'm hesitant to talk to people or the press because I feel so embarrassed for the people who voted for me," said al Dawla.

The Washington Post reported that Maliki's State of Law bloc and Iraqiya are discussing a deal in which Allawi would become president, but with greater powers than the now largely ceremonial post carries. Al Dawla denied that such a proposal is being floated, but Iraqiya often gives conflicting messages.

"As far as I know as a member of the negotiating committee, there is not any kind of communications with the State of Law coalition," said the Iraqiya lawmaker. "In fact, there is an agreement between the members of Iraqiya not to contact the State of Law."

Forming a government initially was delayed after Maliki challenged results that put him behind al Iraqiya and demanded a recount. Widespread opposition to Maliki, even among his Shiite coalition, has presented further obstacles. Although he remains popular in the street, the Shiite prime minister is accused by his former political allies of acting like a dictator — taking decisions such as sending the Iraqi Army into the southern city of Basra — without consultation.

The deadlock has continued even though a new parliament must address key decisions such as revenue sharing, the future of disputed territories and passing a budget.

The Kurdish alliance, whose seats in parliament could play the decisive role in determining who becomes prime minister, has said it will back whichever party makes the strongest guarantees to protect Kurdish interests and has been negotiating with all of them.

U.S. officials have said that they'd support Maliki as head of a diverse government, but the prospects of the Sadrists as a major player in a purely Shiite coalition is a nightmare scenario for the United States. Before announcing a ceasefire in 2004, Sadr led his paramilitary forces — the Mahdi Army — in the biggest challenge to U.S. troops since Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Jeffrey said the U.S. Embassy had been assured that reports the Sadrists had made a deal to back Maliki in exchange for several government ministries and other concessions, including prisoner releases, were untrue.

However, in the clearest public comments yet reflecting U.S. unease over the prospect of the Sadrists taking a key role in government, he warned that they could jeopardize the democratic process.

"The problem that we see and that others see here is that there is not clarity in whether the Sadrist movement is a political movement or it is an armed militia which carries out political objectives through violent means," Jeffrey told reporters.

"We would urge our Iraqi friends to be cautious in the kind of positions that they leave open to anyone who has not made clear their position . . . any group that cannot distinguish between peaceful political processes and violent intimidation, violent attacks and the threat of violence is a problematic partner for the democratic process," he said.

(Arraf is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent. Laith Hammoudi of the McClatchy Baghdad bureau contributed to this article.)