Iraq's Maliki expects to announce coalition by next week

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said Friday his Shiite coalition is close to forming a government and could announce a new coalition by next week, ending the country's long-running political crisis.

"This is not going to be easily determined, but the progress of these talks indicates we have come to near the end of these negotiations," Maliki told the Christian Science Monitor.

Speaking in his first interview since he received the key backing of hard-line cleric Muqtada al Sadr last week, Maliki said he expects the results of negotiations with the Kurdish coalition and talks with the secular Iraqiya block to become clear in the next two to three days.

Although the most likely scenario appeared to involve an alliance with Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiya coalition includes many Sunnis, it was still unclear whether Allawi would accept Maliki's terms. The proposed alliance with Allawi also appeared to sideline the Kurds.

Iraqis went to the polls in March in the first national election since they regained full sovereignty, but forming a government that does not exclude major groups and risk re-igniting sectarian violence has proved agonizingly difficult. When none of the candidates won enough seats to form a majority in parliament, Maliki demanded and obtained a recount. Seven months after the election, negotiations have just recently swung into high gear.

Maliki, who is still more than 20 seats short of the 163-seat majority he needs in parliament, looks almost certain to be the next prime minister, unless his main Shiite rival Adel Abdul Mehdi can muster enough votes.

Recent reports have suggested that Allawi could be president rather than the prime minister's post he maintains he is entitled to, but Maliki on Friday ruled that out.

"The presidency is essentially spoken for," said Maliki, referring to the Kurdish claim to the position currently held by Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, saying they would have to relinquish the position. "Take it from me in full confidence - the Kurds will not forgo the position of president, and the president will be Jalal Talabani."

Instead, he said they were offering Allawi the position of head of a powerful new body named the National Council for Strategic Studies, a decision-making body, as well as the position of speaker of parliament and a share of key ministries for members of Iraqiya.

Maliki said all the parties had rejected a proposal made to them by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden under which Talabani would become a special ambassadorial envoy, Allawi would be named president and Maliki would remain prime minister. American officials have publicly said the U.S. has not promoted any plan but privately have made clear that they will back any government that includes Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites.

The war that toppled Saddam Hussein also paved the way for Iraq's Shiite majority to take power for the first time - sending shock waves throughout the region and within the country's traditional Sunni political elite. The U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi Army and outlaw the Baath party is blamed for fueling the insurgency. Maintaining a balance of power between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds is seen as the key to Iraq holding together.

Maliki has had a roller-coaster ride during political negotiations over the last several months. Although popular in the street, he is widely distrusted by most of his former political allies, who have accused him of not consulting them on national security and other crucial issues. The Shiite coalition he oversees has splintered and come back together several times. In its latest incarnation, the rival Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq has split from the coalition, while the Sadrists, who withdrew their support for Maliki, returned to the fold.

Maliki denied reports that he had promised the Sadrists top security posts in exchange for their support but said they would be given a number of other ministries proportionate to their strength in the alliance.

"They want to participate in the political process and distance themselves from the violence, militias and weapons and other tactics that they used before and we want to encourage them in this matter," he said.

Muqtada Sadr's paramilitary Mahdi Army, made up mostly of poor and disenfranchised Shiites, fought U.S. troops in the streets in 2004. Two years ago, after the militia seized control of Basra, Maliki sent the Iraqi Army to retake the city.

The U.S. has publicly warned against giving the Sadrists a strong role in government despite their having won the biggest single bloc of seats in parliament in the March election.

Asked about the likelihood of negotiating a new security agreement with U.S. forces after they withdraw from Iraq at the end of next year, Maliki said it would be up to the new government and parliament to decide whether that was needed.

"Because we have bought American weapons, it would be customary for the country that supplies them to also supply expertise," he gave as an example of a possible remaining U.S. military presence here.

(McClatchy and the Christian Science Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad)